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Of Mice and. . . Moles, Voles, and Shrews

Welcome back to Ask a Naturalist: your own personal “Google” for information on all things natural on PEI.  My recent post featuring Meadow Voles in the subnivean zone generated lots of questions about the differences among Moles, Voles, and Mice.  Let’s take a look, and add in Shrews for good measure!


First, we don’t have Moles on the Island. You will hear Islanders talking about Moles, but this is a misnomer possibly used because ‘Mole’ and ‘Vole’ sound so much alike. Moles are not at all related to Voles and aren’t even rodents; they’re insectivores like Hedgehogs and Shews (more on Shrews in a moment). The Star-nosed Mole is present and common on the mainland but has never been found on PEI. 

Photo 1: Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Photo by Donna Martin, used with permission.

If you see a mouse-like animal in grassland, pasture, or hayfield on PEI it’s almost certainly a Meadow Vole (Photo 1 by Donna Martin, used with permission). They’re commonly called ‘Field Mice’ here, but Voles and Mice look very different: Voles are plump, with short tails, stubby whiskers, tiny ears, and small eyes.  (PEI also has Red-backed Voles but they’re more likely to be found in forests than fields. Adults are rusty-brown, rather than grey like Meadow Voles).

Photo 2: Deer Mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) nesting in my mailbox. For the sake of my letter carrier, I relocated this crew to my barn.

The Island has three native species of Mice, though Deer Mice are the ones you are most likely to see. Deer Mice are common in both grassland and forest but are also quite content to move into houses, outbuildings, cottages, idle farm machinery, or even my mailbox (Photo 2)!  Mice are more streamlined than Voles, with long tails, graceful whiskers, large eyes, and conspicuous ears; they’re often described as ‘cuter’ than Voles, though I don’t think that’s fair.  

Photo 3: Meadow Jumping Mouse (Zapus hudsonius). Photo by Donna Martin, used with permission.

Our other two native species are Jumping Mice: Woodland and Meadow (Photo 3 by Donna Martin, used with permission). These are small mice with tails longer than their bodies, and – as their names suggest – they can jump like little Kangaroos! The two are differentiated by habitat and by the white tip on the tail of the Woodland species.  Unlike Deer Mice and Voles, Jumping Mice hibernate and so you won’t find tracks or sign of them in winter. PEI is also home to the non-native House Mouse. 

Photo 4: A Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicaudata) on PEI.

Shrews are the smallest of our mammals and are often mistaken for Mice or Voles, though they are not rodents. We have four species on the Island, the largest and most common being the Short-tailed Shrew (Photo 4). A very large Short-tailed Shrew could be as big as a small Meadow Vole, but they are more commonly about half the weight of a Vole.

Photo 5: A Masked Shrew (Sorex cinereus) on PEI.

Masked Shrews are also very common on the Island, and much smaller than their Short-tailed cousins (Photo 5). I find both species in a range of habitats from fields to forest, and it’s not unusual to find them dead and uneaten. Mammalian predators such as Foxes and Cats will kill these insectivores but rarely eat them, likely because of their unpleasant, musky smell.  You can read more about PEI’s Short-tailed and Masked Shrews here:  PEI also has the much less common Water Shrew and Pygmy Shrew, though I’ve never been lucky enough to see either one.

If you have a question about PEI’s wild side, it’s likely others do too!  So, follow me here or on Facebook, join the conversation, and Ask a Naturalist about PEI untamed!

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