24 Brilliant Burrowing Animals

Explore the behaviors and resourcefulness of these clever creatures.

burrowing animals
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There are three types of burrowing animals: primary excavators, which dig their own burrows (think prairie dogs); secondary modifiers, which live inside burrows made by other animals and might modify them to suit their needs; and simple occupants, which just occupy abandoned burrows and don't modify them. All of these animals are quite resourceful and have physical characteristics that enable them to live underground and dig to great depths.

The following are some of the most interesting animals that use burrows as a home, for protection, to lay their eggs, or for other unexpected purposes.

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mlharing / Getty Images

Platypuses can only be found in freshwater and brackish estuaries in eastern Australia. They have the bill of a duck, a tail like a beaver, feet like an otter, and lay eggs—but they're still mammals. Female platypuses dig a waterside burrow in which to lay their eggs and the babies hatch about 10 days later. The offspring remain in the burrow for about four months before moving on and leading independent lives.

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House Mouse

House mouse (Mus musculus) feeding in the forest, Sonian Forest, Brussels, Belgium

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While there are 38 species of mice (Mus genus) on the planet, the most common is the house mouse. When living outdoors, they create burrows in the earth and line them with dry grass, but they will also burrow in found spots. Indoors, they replicate this behavior and attempt to construct burrows in a wide variety of places, from inside walls to pillows in an attic.

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A very rare close up of a wild Pangolin, taken in the Masai Mara, Kenya

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The eight species of pangolin are found on two continents, and all of them are under threat, ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Primarily nocturnal, these scaly mammals dig deep and sometimes quite large burrows to sleep and nest in.

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Funnel Web Spider

A May 2015 photo of a funnel web spider clinging to the bark of a gum tree in the Palmer river district of Cape York, Queensland, Australia.

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The funnel web spider is found in eastern Australia. It is known to build a characteristic funnel-shaped web that radiates out from its burrow. Attached to the sides of the web are long trip lines so the spider can be alerted to predators or prey without leaving home. Some types of funnel web spiders are extremely poisonous.

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 A curious ermine checks out the photographers in remote Kodiak Alaska.

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Weasels have slender bodies, narrow heads, long necks, and short legs, which may have specifically evolved to move easily through burrow systems—particularly rodent burrows, which are their primary prey. Part of the genus Mustela, weasels are found in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, grasslands, tundra, and forests.

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Meerkat Digging On Sand In Desert

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A meerkat is a type of mongoose that lives in southern Africa, including the countries of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique. They live in dry areas such as open plains and grasslands, where they often make their homes in burrows built by other animals, usually ground squirrels. These extensive burrows have a dozen or more exit spots, as well as sleeping and toilet areas.

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A close up portrait of a rat as it emerges from a drain pipe. It's head and paws are exposed as it looks out cautiously.

Alan Tunicliffe Photography / Getty Images

Wild rats build their own burrows and are known to constantly modify them. This is such a deeply engrained behavior that even rats that have been domesticated over the last 150 years for laboratory experiments still engage in burrowing if given the space and materials.

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Close-up of red ants crawling in and out of an underground ant nest (California, USA)

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Almost all ant species create deep, complex underground systems with multiple burrows and various rooms dedicated to different activities. Interestingly, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered that ants' burrowing strategies vary depending on the soil type, digging deeper tunnels through clay and fine-grained soils with higher moisture content.

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Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog Standing On Field

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Prairie dog communities, found in the grasslands of North America, are often identified by the particular mounds of earth left near the entrances of their burrows. Their underground colonies are quite complex and may have between 30 and 50 entrances and exits per acre. A special lookout spot near an exit hole enables them to keep watch for predators, which include the black-footed ferret, coyotes, eagles, foxes, bobcats, and others.

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Burrowing Owl

Portrait of burrowing great horned owl in hole,Morro dos Conventos,Santa Catarina,Brazil

Eduardo Dal Pont Morisso / Getty Images

Burrowing owls build their homes underground themselves or take over burrows built by prairie dogs, squirrels, desert tortoises, or other animals. They may also create their hidden nests in human-made structures and materials, such as PVC pipes or buckets. In addition to living quarters, these owls use their burrows to store food for their brooding period; caches have been found with dozens and even hundreds of rodent carcasses.

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Magellanic Penguin

Young Magellanic Penguin chicks peep out from their nest burrow waiting for the parents to return with food.

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Found along coastal Argentina, Chile, and the Falkland Islands, Magellanic penguins build burrows on the ground or under bushes to protect themselves and their chicks from the direct sun. They prefer soil composed of small particles such as silt and clay.

Magellanic penguins are monogamous. During breeding season, from September to February, females will deposit two eggs in their burrows to incubate.

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Wombat, vombatus ursinus, Tasmania, Australia

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Wombats look like small bears, but they're actually marsupials. Their big, powerful feet and claws make them very efficient diggers—they can move up to 3 feet of earth in one night. Their burrows usually have only one entrance, but include a tunnel or several tunnels to various spaces, including chambers for sleeping. The common wombat generally lives alone, but southern hairy-nosed wombats live in groups in their burrows.

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Burrowing Urchin

Sea urchin, Family Echinometridae, Echinometra mathaei underwater Big Island Hawaii

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Perhaps winning the award for creating a burrow out of the toughest material, the burrowing urchin actually scrapes out rock to create its living space and hide from predatory fish. It is able to grind through the limestone in the ocean thanks to its super strong teeth, which are composed of crystals of magnesium calcitate and continue to grow throughout its live.

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Pocket Gopher

A close up view of a gopher in a grass hole.

Lisa Marie / Getty Images

Pocket gophers are burrowing rodents found in North and Central America. This animal is well-known for the tunnels it creates, which lead to a variety of burrowing spaces with specific functions. Those tunnels often frustrate farmers and gardeners, but in non-human dominated spaces, they serve a vital purpose—aerating the soil. That's important especially in places where animal agriculture and farming machinery has compacted the soil.

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Young Aardvark(Orycteropus afer)looking for ants and termites.Namibia

Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Aardvarks live in the savannahs, rainforests, woodlands, and scrublands of Africa. Their burrows are an integral component of their survival strategy, as they have poor eyesight and are known as solitary, nocturnal, and very cautious animals. Before leaving the protection of their burrows, for example, they often stand at the entrance for several minutes to make sure that predators aren't waiting to attack them. And when they sleep, aardvarks block the entrance to their burrow and curl into a tight ball. They also change burrows frequently, digging new ones with their strong front legs.

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Pair of common kingfisher in breeding season digging a den in riverbank

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There are 92 species of kingfishers, which can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Unlike other types of birds, instead of nests, kingfishers build burrows in dirt banks, old termite mounds, or softwood trees. Male and female kingfishers take turns digging out the soil with their feet to build their burrow, which includes a nesting chamber for their eggs.

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Desert Tortoise

Desert tortoise lives in hole made in the desert

Shakeel Sha / Getty Images

Desert tortoises use burrows mostly as protection from extreme desert temperatures. They actually build separate burrows for the different seasons. Their summer holes are shallower (between 3 feet and 10 feet deep), dug at a 20-degree-angle, and are used when regular shade does not provide enough relief from daytime heat. Winter burrows are horizontal tunnels dug into banks, can be up to 30 feet long, and provide stable temperatures year-round.

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Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin in nesting burrow, Skomer Island Wales UK

Peter Llewellyn / Getty Images

Like many of the animals on this list, puffins nest in burrows to keep predators away from their offspring, which is especially important for these birds since they only raise one young—called a puffling—each year. These nests, built by the puffins with their feet and beaks, are between 2 feet and 3 feet deep and can be found on the steep sea cliffs of the North Atlantic, where 60% of Atlantic puffins live.

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European Rabbit

Young European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) looks curious from Bau, Lower Austria, Austria

Sonja Jordan / Getty Images

This rabbit is native to the Iberian peninsula in Spain, Portugal, and southwestern France, though it has been introduced to the rest of Europe and Australia, where it's an invasive species. The structure of their extensive burrows, called warrens, can vary depending on soil availability. According to a study on the types of burrows of the European wild rabbit, the animal builds larger tunnels in sandy soil and shorter, narrower tunnels in silty soil.

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Close up of a Six-banded armadillo (Euphractus sexcinctus) standing next to its burrow, South Pantanal, Brazil

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There are 20 very different species of armadillos, ranging from the 130-pound giant armadillo to the tiny pink fairy armadillo, which weighs only around 4 ounces. All of them do share some important characteristics: they have tough, layered scales and they all burrow.

The nine-banded armadillo, the only species found in the United States, usually digs multiple burrows in its home range for easy refuge in case it feels threatened while foraging. Each armadillo may have between five and 10 burrows hidden under tangles of roots and briars.

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Meadow Vole

A vole in a hole near water.

Mark Bridger / Getty Images

Voles spend most of their lives in their burrow systems, which are elaborate networks of nests, tunnels, surface runways, and openings hidden by layers of grass and ground cover. They have a very wide range of predators, which explains their elusive behavior. They are hunted by owls, hawks, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and snakes, among other predators.

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Ghost Shrimp

Pregnant Glass Shrimp
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Ghost shrimp are tiny, but their digging abilities are quite impressive. Measuring an average of 4 inches, they manage to create burrows up to 4 feet deep along the water's edge and seafloor. They tunnel along not just for protection from predators, but also to find food. As they dig, they are able to capture food found in the sediment or floating through the water that flows into the tunnel.

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Red Fox

 Quartet of baby foxes huddled around opening of burrow

SteveOehlenschlager / Getty Images

Female red foxes dig burrows or dens to give birth and raise their pups safely, but they may also use them as shelter when it rains and to store food. Sometimes they make a den in a log or cave, but most are dug out by the fox or may be "remodeled" burrows previously used by other animals.

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Polar Bear

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) mother coming out freshly opened den with backlight, Wapusk national park, Canada.

Andre Anita / Getty Images

Polar bear are mostly known for building dens in snowdrifts and slopes, but they may also build underground burrows to protect themselves and their young from extreme temperatures. Polar bear cubs are born between November and January, but they will wait until warmer temperatures arrive in the spring to emerge from their refuge. Heat generated by their mom's body can raise the temperature inside the burrow or den to 40 F, even if it's far colder outside.

View Article Sources
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