The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 14, 2005


Southern red-backed vole

(Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Name: The southern red-backed vole is Clethrionomys gapperi. It is also known as the boreal red-backed vole and Gapper's red-backed vole. In older texts, it might be listed as a red-backed mouse. The genus name, Clethrionomys, means some kind of dormouse. Gapperi is from the name of the zoologist, Gapper.

When and where seen: This red-backed vole specimen was found by Leslie Thomas in her garage on Estabrook Road on January 3. The usual habitat is damp areas of evergreen or mixed hardwood forest.

Distinguishing characteristics: It looks like a chunky reddish-brown mouse with a very short tail. The chestnut-colored band on its back that runs from the head all the way to the tail makes this vole easy to distinguish from other small rodents. (There is a gray phase that sometimes occurs in the Northeast and can easily be mistaken for a meadow vole which doesn't have the distinguishing red back.) The belly is buff to silvery; the feet are gray, and the tail has a little tuft at the tip. The red-backed vole is about five inches long including about one and a half inches of tail. By comparison, the white-footed mouse is seven inches long including about three inches of tail.

Moles, voles, and mice: Moles are much larger than voles and mice and are highly adapted for a life underground. Moles are not rodents; they belong to the order Insectivora, along with shrews. Mice and voles are rodents, members of the order Rodentia. Voles differ from mice in that they have a less-pointy nose, a much shorter tail, neat little ears (nothing like Mickey Mouse), and small eyes. They also have different standards of hygiene — mice leave droppings in their nests but voles deposit their droppings at major crossroads of their tunnels.

The food chain: Voles, both the meadow vole and the red-backed vole, are a significant part of the diet of hawks and owls. They are also preyed upon by carnivorous mammals like coyotes, foxes, skunks, weasels and cats. The red-backed vole is largely herbivorous, eating leaves, tender young plant stems and buds, seeds, berries, nuts, and roots. In the fall, it eats a lot of underground fungi. It is reputed to be very fond of tulip bulbs and hostas. It will also eat insects, spiders and snails.

References: Alfred J. Godin, Wild Mammals of New England; Peter Alden and Brian Cassie, National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England; Donald W Stokes, A Guide to Nature in Winter.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. Send a photo, a note about a sighting, or the whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito