Discovering the Diversity of Burrowing Creatures
What Is Burrowing?
Burrowing is the process whereby an animal excavates a hole in the ground in which to shelter. This can be done using the animal’s own body, or with tools such as its claws or teeth. Some animals may even steal the burrows of others!
Burrows can be simple holes in the ground, or they can be complex networks of tunnels. Some animals, such as moles, spend their entire lives underground in their burrows.
Here are some of the various burrowing animals known to dig, build or live in underground homes, either temporarily or permanently.
List of Burrowing Animals
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
The Platypus (also known as the Duck-billed Platypus) is a semi-aquatic mammal endemic to eastern Australia, including Tasmania.
It is about the size of a cat, and has thick, waterproof fur all over its body (except for the feet and bill) that insulates the animal and keeps it warm. Their legs sprawl out to the side of the body, giving it a lizard-like walk.
The Platypus tends to habitat bridges rivers and the riparian zone (the interface between land and a flowing surface water body) for both a food supply of prey species and banks where it can dig a home.
They will dig two types of burrows – resting and nesting burrows. The entrance to these burrows can often be underwater and they can be up to 20 meters long.
Groundhog (Marmota monax)
The groundhog, also known as the woodchuck, belongs to the family ‘Sciuridae‘ and the genus ‘marmots‘. They can be found in North America, particularly in the Eastern United States, across Canada and into Alaska.
The groundhog is very important in maintaining healthy soil in woodland and plain areas and is considered to be a crucial habitat engineer. It is the largest of the squirrel family in its range, measuring between 41.8 and 68.5 cm, and has a stocky build. They also have rounded ears and powerful, short legs and broad, long claws that allow them to dig very well.
Groundhogs enter into true hibernation and are one of the few species to do so. They will often build a separate “winter burrow” for this purpose. Burrow entrances may be located near trees or walls and fences. The entrance is usually easy to identify by the surrounding crescent-shaped mound of dirt.
Meerkat (Suricata suricatta)
The Meerkat is also called a ‘Suricate’ and is a small member of the mongoose family whose range extends from South West Angola to South Africa. They inhabit dry open areas, scrublands and savannas, and inhabit all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and South Africa.
Meerkats are incredibly curious little creatures, often standing as tall as they can on their hind legs, looking out over a distance. They have incredible social structures, and work very well as a unit. There are always some on the lookout while others are hard at work. They are exceptional diggers.
Meerkats measure about 25 – 35 cm in length excluding their tail. The length of their tail measures 17 – 25 cm and is not bushy like other mongoose species. They are more slender than many mongoose and have pointed snouts, silvery brown fur and irregular dark stripes on their rumps which are unique to each meerkat.
They usually live in places where there is plenty of sandy soil where they can dig elaborate underground burrows. These complex habitats have many tunnels which lead to numerous sleeping chambers. It is not uncommon for a meerkat burrow to start off as the home of another animal, such as a ground squirrel. Meerkats are known to move in and ‘expand’ upon these burrow complexes.
Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)
The slow worm, also known as a deaf adder or a blindworm is a reptile native to western Eurasia. Despite its name and appearance, it is not actually a worm or a snake, but a lizard. It is a semifossorial (burrowing), legless lizard, which spends much of its time hiding underneath objects. They have the ability to shed their tails to escape predators such as domestic cats.
They can be found in heathland, tussocky grassland, woodland edges and rides where they can find invertebrates to eat and a sunny patch in which to sunbathe.
Slow worms hibernate, spending the colder months from October to March burrowed underground, only emerging in April to breed. They may disappear underground again during the hottest part of the summer, although they need the warmth of the sun to gain the energy needed to hunt.
Rabbits (Family of Leporidae)
There are many species of rabbit and these, along with pikas and hares, make up the order Lagomorpha. One of the differences between rabbit and hare species, is that rabbits live in burrows and hares do not. It is estimated that up to half of the worlds rabbit population lives in North America! They are also commonly commonly found Southern and Western parts of Europe, parts of Southeast Asia including Japan, African and South America. They live in environments ranging from desert to tropical forest and wetland.
Rabbits are social animals and thrive in groups. In the wild, rabbits live in warrens, or underground networks of burrows, with many different ‘nests’ of rabbits. A rabbit burrow usually has one main entrance, and a series of well connected tunnels and underground chambers. They are abundant in grassland areas where the soil allows them to make extensive, well-drained burrows, but also where there are hedges or patches of woodland to give shelter and cover.
Weasels (Mustela nivalis)
The Weasel is the smallest member of the Mustelid family and Britain’s smallest carnivore. They are found in central and western Europe and the Mediterranean region (but not the Mediterranean islands). Weasels also inhabit North Africa, Asia and North America, and were introduced to New Zealand.
While weasels can burrow, they generally do not make themselves any kind of permanent burrow. Instead, they usually steal the tunnel or burrow of one of the animals such as rats, mice and even field voles that they have eaten. They have even been known to line these stolen burrows with their victims fur.
Ants (Fammily of Formicidae)
There are over 11,880 known ant species, most of which reside in hot climates. They are incredibly social, highly dependant on each other and they live in organised hierarchal colonies. These colonies live in complex burrow networks called nests.
Colonies of invasive ant species will sometimes work together and form super-colonies, spanning a very wide area of land. Ant colonies are sometimes described as superorganisms because they appear to operate as a single entity.
Each colony of ants has its own smell. In this way, intruders can be recognized immediately. Some species of ant are known for attacking and taking over the colonies of others ant species.
At the entrance of an ant nest, there is usually an ant hill. These are essentially a pile of earth, sand, pine needles, or clay or a composite of these and other materials that build up at the entrances after being removed by ants digging out their nests. Colonies consist of a series of underground chambers, connected to each other and the surface of the earth by small tunnels. There are rooms for nurseries, food storage, and mating.
Wombat (Family of Vombatidae)
Wombats are small bear-like marsupials found throughout south eastern Australia and Tasmania. They are shy, timid animals that can make good, playful and affectionate pets. They have large heads, short, powerful legs with powerful claws, thick set, muscular bodies and rodent-like front teeth suitable for their burrowing way of life.
The wombat prefers to live in hilly or mountainous coastal country, creeks and gullies. They will dig out burrows measuring 30 metres (100 feet) long, usually with one entrance. These burrows may branch out into different chambers. The wombat makes its nest in one of these chambers and it will be lined with grass, bark and leaves.
Galapagos Garden Eel (Heteroconger cobra)
The Galapagos Garden Eel measures around 70 centimetres in length and lives in tropical waters with a depth range of between 10 and 30 metres. They inhabit clean sand areas at the bottom of the ocean near reefs and are usually found in large colonies.
These eel use their hard-tipped tails to drill into the soft sandy ground, creating a burrow. The sand around them is held in place due to a glue like slime that comes from their skin. From these burrows, garden eels with feed and mate by partially emerging from the sand, but they will rarely leave these burrows.
Southern Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina carolinensis)
The Southern Short-tailed Shrew looks somewhat like a rodent, however, it is a member of the order Soricomorpha and should not be confused as a member of the order Rodentia.
These Shrew are well adapted for digging. They have strong, wide front feet which are slightly larger than their hind feet. They burrow using a combination of their forefeet, head and nose. In soft soil, they are capable of burrowing at a rate of 30 centimetres per minute, which is quite an achievement considering their tiny size.
Southern Short-tailed Shrews burrows occupy two different zone levels. One level being several centimetres beneath the ground or sometimes upon the ground, the other level somewhat deeper at around 40 – 60 centimetres below the surface. The two levels are joined at irregular intervals. Most burrows are made beneath logs and sometimes joins the log which is then honeycombed. Rotten wooded logs are preferred as these are easier to work with.
Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)
The Aardvark, sometimes called ‘antbear’ is a medium-sized mammal native to Africa. These animals have very distinctive teeth that have a number of thin tubes of dentine and no enamel coating. Its body is stout with an arched back and is sparsely covered with coarse hairs. They also have shovel-shaped claws for digging.
Apart from digging out ants and termites, the aardvark also excavates burrows in which to live. Temporary sites are scattered around their home range as refuges and a main burrow is used for breeding. Main burrows can be deep and extensive, have several entrances and can be as long as 13 metres.
The Aardvark changes the layout of its home burrow regularly and from time to time moves on and makes a new one. The old burrows are then inhabited by smaller animals such as the African Wild Dog. Only mothers and cubs share burrows. If attacked in the tunnel, the aardvark will seal the tunnel off behind itself or turn around and attack with its claws.
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
The Atlantic Puffin is recognised by its brightly colored rounded beak and its similar appearance to a penguin. Also known as the ‘Common Puffin’, it is the only puffin species which is found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Atlantic Puffins are colonial nesters, using burrows on grassy cliffs, or in rocky areas with short vegetation. Most burrows are tunnelled out by digging and depositing dirt behind them. In much the same way as a canid or badger would dig under a fence. A burrow is usually dug out to around 2 to 3 feet long.
Armadillo (Family of Dasypodidae)
The sharp claws of the armadillo are used to dig deep into the ground to protect their softer parts from damage when threatened by a predator. They also use these sharp claws to create burrows in the ground. They line these burrows with leaves and vegetation and they provide the armadillo with a soft and comfortable home. They usually sleep for up to 16 hours in their burrow, and forage for food during the mornings and evenings.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
The Red Fox is the most widely distributed and populous canid in the world, having colonised large parts of Europe, America, Asia and Africa.
During the autumn and winter, the Red Fox will grow more fur. This so called ‘winter fur’ keeps the animal warm in colder environments. The fox sheds this fur at the beginning of spring, reverting back to the short fur for the duration of the summer.
The fox is a remarkably resourceful creature, able to cope in a very wide range of different environmental conditions, from sub-tropical regions to icy tundra. They build complex homes called ‘dens‘ across their territories.
Dens may be newly dug out or claimed from previous residents such as marmots. A larger main den is used for winter living, birthing and rearing of young, whereas smaller dens are dispersed throughout the territory for emergency and food storage purposes. A series of tunnels often connects them with the main den.
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Polar Bears are semi-aquatic mammals found in coastal areas throughout the Arctic. It is the worlds largest carnivore species found on land, and is closely related to the brown bear.
While polar bears are known to inhabit ice fields, they also live in dug out dens in the snow. They are also known to dig out maternity dens for giving birth to and rearing cubs. These dens are often near the coast, on south facing slopes.
It is only the female polar bears, and their young when they arrive, that occupy these dens. These are usually temporary homes for winter, though some ‘summer dens’ are used to help bears cool off in the warmer months. They consist of an entrance tunnel which leads to a main chamber, then a separate chamber for cubs, and sometimes a lower chamber.
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
The Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest owl species. Also known as the shoco, they are found in both North and South America, primarily in grasslands, deserts, and other open habitats.
Burrowing owls live in abandoned burrows of other animals, such as ground squirrels, badgers, tortoises and coyotes. When no abandoned burrow is available, these owls will dig their own burrow. These burrows are usually 3 to 3.7 meters in length and angled downwards so that the sunlight cannot reach the bottom of the burrow.
European Badgers (Meles meles)
European Badgers are the largest members of the Mustelid family and are Britain’s largest land carnivores. They are known for being nocturnal, underground dwellers.
Badgers rarely venture out during the day and live in an extensive network of underground tunnels and nests, known as a ‘sett’. Badgers prefer a well drained soil and often dig their setts under matted tree roots to provide stability to the soil. Nest chambers in the tunnels are lined with dry grass, bracken and straw.
In urban areas, badgers are known to dig under garden decking, paved roads and buildings. In places where it gets very cold, they will dig sleeping chambers down beneath the frost line and may sleep in groups within a single chamber for warmth.
Burrowing Animal Facts
- Most burrowing animals are small, although the giant armadillo can grow to over a meter in length.
- Burrowing animals generally have short legs and sharp claws or teeth, which they use to dig their burrows.
- Some animals, such as the Meerkat or African mole-rat, live in complex burrow systems with multiple entrances and chambers.
- Burrows can provide animals with protection from predators, the elements, and extreme temperatures.
- Some animals use their burrows to store food, while others use them to rear their young.
- Burrowing animals generally have poor eyesight, but compensate for this with a strong sense of smell.
- Some animals, such as the aardvark, are exclusive burrowers, while others, such as badgers, only use burrows occasionally.
- Burrowing animals are found on every continent except Antarctica.
- The African naked mole-rat is the longest-lived burrowing animal, with a lifespan of up to 28 years.