Mist, the Bay Journal's resident mouser, occasionally surprises us with a trophy that resembles a mouse but has darker fur, a chunky body and short, hairy tail. She has caught a vole. Based on our observations, we suspect that they are young meadow voles. (My dissecting skills are limited to stories, not rodent corpses' which are quickly tossed into the woods just outside the office.) There are roughly 70 vole species in North America, and the meadow vole is one of four that live in the Bay watershed; the others are the woodland vole, rock vole and southern red-backed vole. See if you can figure out the answers to questions about these critters while we try to figure out how they are getting into our office.

1. Voles are often mistaken for mice. What is the easiest way to tell the difference between these two species?

A. Color
B. Snout
C. Size
D. Tail

2. Voles are also often mistaken for shrews or moles. At a quick glance, which similar physical trait shared by moles and shrews would tell you that they are not voles?

A. Ears
B. Eyes
C. Snout
D. All of the above

3. Which of these animals are in the same subfamily (Arvicolinae) as the vole?

A. Chipmunks & Squirrels
B. Lemmings & Muskrats
C. Mice & Moles
D. Shrews & Weasels

4. Voles in the watershed are active year-round, and are often found in the "subnival zone." What is the subnival zone?

A. The area above the ground but below the snowpack
B. The stony soil loosely packed amid the roots of a tree
C. The clay beneath the bed of a shallow pond
D. The hard-packed soil on the bottom of caves

5. Like all other rodents, the voles' incisors continue to grow throughout the animal's life. What else in the vole's mouth continues to grow throughout its life?

A. Canine teeth
B. Molar teeth
C. Tongue
D. Internal whiskers

For questions 6-9, match the vole with its description: meadow vole, woodland vole, rock vole & southern red-backed vole:

6. Because of its orangish yellow nose, this vole is often called the yellownose vole. It is grayish brown on top and lighter below. It is the least observed vole in the watershed, where it is found in mountainous areas among the boulders and dense ground cover of damp woodlands. It makes its runways along the surface or in shallow, underground burrows. It eats grass, moss, fungi, berries and caterpillars.

7. This vole is rusty red above and buff below. It lives in cool, damp forests and swamps, and its runways include the burrows of other animals as well as the natural runways along rocks and logs. It is also found in tree branches. It eats nuts, berries, fungi and roots. It is very territorial and avoids others of its kind except during breeding or when females raise the young.

8. This vole is reddish brown above and grayish buff below. It spends much of its time in surface burrows in deciduous woodlands, fields with thick ground cover or orchards. These voles form monogamous pairs and live in loose colonies. It eats plants but prefers tuber and roots. It is notorious for causing extensive root damage in orchards.

9. This is the most widespread vole in North America. It is usually gray below; while its back fur varies from reddish, yellowish or blackish brown. It is quite active in the winter, which is perhaps a disadvantage, given that it is 95 percent of eastern owls' and hawks' diet. When alarmed, it will stamp its feet, rabbit-style. It is a voracious eater and consumes a variety of vegetation, and in winter, when food is scare, it is known for girdling trees.

Answers

1. D Voles have short tails compared to their body length. Mice tails are often almost half their body length. 2. D Voles have a round, blunt snout; shrews and moles have pointed snouts. If you can see the critter's ears and eyes, it is most likely a vole. Moles do not have external ears, and shrews' ears are buried in their fur, as are their eyes. Moles have very tiny eyes. (The woodland vole has small eyes and ears, but does not have the pointed snout.) 3. B Lemmings & Muskrats 4. A 5. B 6. Rock vole 7. Southern red-backed vole 8. Woodland vole 9. Meadow vole