Earth Creatures

With Earth Day coming next week, let’s take a fun look at animals who live not on top of the earth…but inside it.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and many more creatures dig this earth.

Mammals. Many mammals live underground to give birth and raise their young.

Bears come first to mind, as the largest hibernators on our planet. They live roughly half their lives inside their dens.

Badgers, rabbits and foxes occupy dens too.

Many smaller mammals, like this mongoose below, live in burrows. Burrows, like dens, provide protection from predators as well as temperature extremes.

Warthogs, mammals in the pig family, do not have fur and use their burrows to stay warm, give birth and raise their young. They use their ivory tusks to dig for tubers, leaving the burrow-digging to other animals, usually using old aardvark burrows.

In Africa, guides warn you not to stand in front of any holes because it could be a warthog burrow; and those small but ferocious animals come bounding out tusks-first if they sense danger.

You might not guess that river otters use dens. Although they spend a lot of time in the water, they require oxygen to breathe.

Like warthogs and many other mammals, river otters use the burrows of other animals, usually beavers, for giving birth.

While many animals borrow burrows, prairie dogs are the original architects of their underground kingdom.

Found in the grasslands of North America, prairie dogs have short bodies and strong claws perfect for digging. They build extensive underground colonies, called towns, that can span hundreds of acres.

Where I live in Northern California, hibernating chipmunks are starting their springtime surfacing. These adorable little animals are so busy, I love it when they return topside.

This vole had me laughing on a recent day at dusk, as it stealthily scrambled out of his hole, grabbed a morsel from under the bird feeder, then shot back to the burrow. He did this numerous times, one tiny morsel at a time.

Some birds use burrows, too.

Burrowing owls use ground squirrel or prairie dog tunnels for their roosting and nesting.

Kingfishers and bee-eaters also nest underground. Bee-eaters loosen the soil or sand by jabbing with their sharp bills, then use their feet to kick out the loosened debris.

Reptiles. Ectotherms, like lizards and snakes who rely on outside sources for thermoregulation, need the energy of the sun to move. After a winter of hibernating underground, they wake up in spring and come out of the earth.

On warm days lately our western fence lizards and alligator lizards are joining us.

A few years back, we found this California whipsnake, who moves as fast as a whip, foraging on top of the bush because the ground hadn’t warmed up yet that day.

Insects and Others. The world of insects is immense, as you know, but here are a few familiar insects who live inside the earth.

Cicadas come out of their burrows after living underground for years in the larval stage. The underground hibernation can last as long as 17 years for some species.

Beetles often live underground too.

Perhaps the most familiar underground insects to humans are termites and ants.

Termites are colonizing insects, of which there are many kinds. The mound-building termites found in Africa, South America and Australia build above-ground structures that act as ventilation systems for the underground nest. Often the mound outlives the colony.

This is a dormant termite mound in Australia that is over six feet tall. In the background of this harsh and dry habitat you can see smaller mounds across the landscape.

And ants, well they are the most supreme underground beings on this earth. Our planet has tens of thousands of ant species. Highly social insects, they form elaborate organized colonies underground.

Leafcutter ants, my favorite ant species, can be found in tropical parts of the Americas. Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.

In this photo, each ant is carrying a morsel of leaf they have bit off. They are headed, all in the same direction, to their subterranean fungal garden. In just a few years, their nests can grow to 98 feet across (30 m) and contain eight million ants.

Lastly, earthworms, crustaceans and many water-associated creatures also live below earth’s surface. These fiddler crabs were entertaining us during low tide, as they skittered in and out of their burrows.

Underground nests, burrows, and dens benefit the earth in many ways, and they have fascinating creatures to watch.

Whether they come bounding out of their burrow in a deadly pursuit, or languidly emerging after 17 years, underground creatures have elaborate subterranean worlds.

Cheers to Earth Day and all of us who live on and in this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

83 thoughts on “Earth Creatures

  1. Another fun and informative post with great photos A and J! The Earth is a good home and I realized humans’ first shelters were caves… we probably got the idea from observing animals. πŸ™‚

    • I’m delighted this earth-living post got you thinking about humans’ first shelters, Eliza. We humans have indeed been observing how the animals live for all time. One of my favorite things about petroglyphs and cave art is seeing how much influence the animals had on human activity. Thanks so very much.

  2. And, cheers to you and Athena for sharing your love of, interest in, and championing of this Earth and her many wonderful creatures!

    • It was fun putting this post together, Timothy, for the variety of critters that you mention. Once I started thinking about all the creatures who live in the earth, it opened up quite a vista. Thanks very much.

  3. Wonderful topic today, and the photos are top notch. I developed a system for photographing badgers decades ago that never failed. You have to see one entering its burrow. Sit beside the hole and focus. Then start squeeking with your lips. It may take 20 minutes, but he will pop up for a look. He’s safe in that hole, so there is no aggression. All my old pics are on Kodachrome in the attic somewhere, but I had some great ones.

  4. These days many Homo sapiens also live underground, in their so-called man-caves, watching the world through electronic devices while consuming large quantities of greasy food heavily laden with salt and sugar. They rarely venture outside, and when they do so, they are well masked and protected against extremely small and invisible enemies that may harm or kill them. It is feared that if this situation continues those invisible enemies will be the least of their worries, while the lack of physical activity and other human contact will in fact lead to a mass extinction event of their species.

  5. And clams too! I like this angle of “Earth” Day. We don’t often think of many of these animals as needing the Earth to crawl into it. What a variety you’ve come up with. Well done.

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed this Earth Day angle, Anneli. That vole got me thinking about all the critters who live underground. Many thanks for your kind words and visit today.

  6. Once again I learn so much from your posts. Thank you, Jet, for such wonderful information and beautiful images. I particularly loved learning about the Prairie Dog’s towns….
    What an amazing world we inhabit. Have a beautiful weekend. Janet πŸ™‚

    • It was great fun sharing the marvels of our underground friends with you today, Janet. Thanks so much for your visit. And my wishes to you, too, for a beautiful weekend.

    • Those little leafcutter ants are so cool. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them, M.B. It’s fun to follow them, too, to see where the big garden is that they’re headed for. Some of those nests occupy huge swaths of the rainforest, it’s amazing. Many thanks for your lovely visit today.

    • I agree, Mike, those underground creatures really are so resourceful. And so many different kinds of creatures who live underground. Thanks so very much, always a pleasure to “see” you.

  7. Great variety of creatures that most people will recognize. Do you know that the leaf-cutter ants sing white carrying the leaves? … Not really! But, doesn’t it reminds you of old movies that had safaris in Africa and the natives carried the bundles of provisions on their heads, in line and sang natives songs? Never mind. Thank you for the great post. Happy Earth Day! πŸ™‚

    • I enjoyed your fun comment today, HJ. I’ve watched so many leafcutter ants and as I was reading your comment I thought, “No, I didn’t know they sang too. Isn’t that interesting.” And then you fessed up and they don’t sing at all. Fun ant joke, HJ. Sending smiles your way, my friend. And Happy Earth Day to you, another beautiful soul who enjoys the earth everyday.

  8. What fun to see a small slice of the variety of animals in world, Jet. My thought with chipmunks is that they’re so cute in the wild and such a pain in your yard/garden. πŸ™‚ I wouldn’t want to disturb a warthog, that’s for sure. As for termites, when we were in Costa Rica and the guide asked if anyone knew what termites made their dwellings from, I was the only one who knew. πŸ™‚ Have a marvelous weekend.


    • I really enjoyed hearing your outdoor experiences with the creatures of the earth today, Janet. Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m sending warm wishes your way for a delightful weekend.

  9. We can dig this! Loved the variety you chose here, what a world we get to share. Ants are amazing, and the numbers alone are head-scratching…
    I love to see the prairie dogs emerge, and have sat watching them for hours back in AB. I’d happily come back as a prairie dog – with one eye on the skies at all times.
    Thanks, Jet!

    • Always a joy when you come by, pc. Thanks for your fun comment. I, too, love watching the prairie dogs emerge, there’s so much going on in their busy community. And I love the insight into their life with “one eye on the skies at all times.” Many thanks for you spirited words, and sending lots of smiles for a happy weekend.

  10. Fabulous photos and detailed information on all these fascinating beings, Jet! I knew that American dippers nested underground but was surprised to learn that kingfishers do, too. Our chipmunks are (perhaps unfortunately) rather active in the winter months. As long as there is some snow-free ground, they’re looking for seeds under the bird feeder and chowing down on juniper berries.

    Oh, and Athena even caught a pocket gopher! That’s a tough one.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by Eilene, and joining the celebration of earth creatures. We both shared some bird nesting info with each other, because I didn’t know that American Dippers nested underground. I just looked it up, and see that they nest in the earth near water, which makes perfect sense. Thanks for the tidbit. I liked hearing about your chipmunks in the winter. And yes, that pocket gopher photo was really a prize. He was in and out and in and out in that one spot long enough that she was able to get a good photo. Thanks very much, Eilene.

    • Thank you Diana. Yes, I agree, we do not often see river otters on land. We were thrilled, and I’m glad I could share that lovely moment with you. Thanks for your visit and comment today.

    • You’re lucky there are many ground squirrels in Calgary, Frank. Often where there are ground squirrels there are eagles. Thanks so much for your kind comment and pleasant visit.

  11. I very much enjoyed this earthly point of view! Seems we share quite a few of these critters… the ground squirrels, and the river otters and the lovely foxes. I’m usually headed in the opposite direction when there’s any sign of the whip snakes. 😯

    • Yes, we often have many of the same critters as you in OR, Gunta. Those whipsnakes are so incredibly fast! They’re not poisonous or anything, but whoa can they ever move! It was really a treat to have you visit today, Gunta. I know you’re not blogging much lately so I feel honored that you stopped by.

      • It’s that incredibly fast movement that startles me EVERY SINGLE time… I probably jump a mile!
        Oh, thanks so much for the welcoming comment. I’m trying to slowly work my way back again, but this last year seems to have created a bunch of brain fog that’s hard to overcome… though some of it may be due to the accumulation of years along the way. πŸ₯΄
        I always enjoy your posts so much. I just had to stop in for a visit. And, I enjoyed it as much as usual!

      • I’m glad you know how to manage this past tough year, Gunta, and have the ability to take care of yourself and make your time as pleasant as possible. My warmest thanks for your visit, dear one.

  12. Great selection of critters, you guys sure have been around! The cicada’s a real eyecatcher…who would have believed that something like that could drive you crazy with earache! πŸ™‚

    • Cicadas are always truly puzzling, aren’t they, Platypus Man. For a relatively small creature they have such reverberating and startling volume. Really a pleasure to have you stop by, thank you.

  13. All the way through, I kept thinking, “Crawfish! Don’t forget the crawfish!” And you didn’t — the mention of the crustaceans and such at the end did the trick. Can you believe that Texas has around thirty species of crawfish that are stable, and a few more that are of concern?

    I still remember the day I learned that bumblebees nest in the ground. Coincidentally, that was the day I learned you shouldn’t make a ground-nesting bumblebee angry enough to sting. And still in the realm of insects, there were those same termite mounds in Liberia. When the insects swarmed, the kids would go out and collect them in dishpans, then roast them and sell them as a treat. Yes, I tried them — but only once. Mind over matter just didn’t work in that case!

    • I very much enjoyed your discussion of the mud and earth creatures, Linda. It was such a wide topic to squeeze into a blog post that I had some challenge covering everyone, but I’m glad you approve of the method in which I did. I also really liked hearing about the 30 or so crawfish species in TX. And I, too, have had experience with those ground-nesting bees…yikes. I espec. enjoyed hearing about the termites in Liberia that the natives caught and roasted. Many thanks for your contribution today.

  14. The beautiful and wonderous living things that populate our planet are totally amazing!
    We humans are so blessed to have them as our neighbors.
    Thank you, Jet and Athena, have a delightful day! love, Eddie

    • Yes, I totally agree, Eddie. We humans are blessed to have so many wonderous living beings as our neighbors. And I am blessed to have you for my friend. Thank you, dear Eddie…always a complete pleasure.

  15. I can think of no people better top show the diversity of the animal life then you and Athena. Glorious photos of those who burrow in and under. Sending you both best wishes on Earth day and always.

    • Thank you for your warm and generous comment, Sue. Athena and I sure have had a grand time befriending all the marvelous creatures of this world. And it is really an honor to share them with you, Sue. My warmest thanks.

    • I am really glad you enjoyed the earth creatures, Belinda, and very much appreciate your visit. Happy Earth Day to you, Belinda, to one who enjoys the earth everyday.

  16. What a brilliant idea to celebrate Earth Day in such a literal way and be able to use that to showcase such an array of interesting animals. I love the almost quizzical expression on the vole’s face and the gray fox is particularly beautiful (I don’t recall seeing a photo of one before). I looked through the lovely photos several times. Thanks!

    • Lovely to have you stop by, Carol, thank you. I often celebrate Earth Day by featuring an environmental hero, but I changed it up this year, convinced by the vole who came to visit one early evening, also a hero. We have lived on this property 20 years and I have never seen a vole, and then for two nights in a row, the vole appeared. Very entertaining. I’m glad you caught the vole’s quizzical expression, for it was a fun exchange. The gray foxes are native to our area and almost never seen for their uncommonness and nocturnal ways. But that day was a lucky one when a pair of curious kit siblings pranced in and looked around. Thank you for your visit, and a salute to your beautiful South Africa.

      • How interesting to see a vole – and then twice in a row – after not having seen one for 20 years. Are they quite rare or is more that they are hard to see? How lucky too to see the young foxes, and of course all the other interesting animals featuring in your post. I hope that you will be able to travel to visit southern Africa again before too much time goes by, but in the meantime it seems you are living in a wonderful place.

      • I thought it was interesting too, that we saw a vole twice in a row after not seeing one for 20 years. Our conditions here have changed in the past 2.5 years since we had a weeks-long spell of wildfires in Oct. 2017 that wiped out 98% of our forest. That was a tough time. It is recovering now, but the fir and pine tree cover is mostly gone now, so it’s a lot more open to the sun. As a result of the changed habitat, the animals have changed too. Once we got over the devastation of the fires (we lost a lot), we have been observing the various post-fire changes, including animals. We don’t have some animals that we used to, and we have others that we’ve never seen before, hence, I think, the vole. Wildflowers and vegetation have changed a lot too. Interesting. Re So. Africa. I do hope we can someday return. We loved it there. My partner and I both really love Africa and would come back more often if it wasn’t so expensive. Our favorite wildlife places in So. Africa: the Luangwa Vly, Okavango Delta, Chobe River. I enjoy visiting there with you so very much, Carol. Many thanks for your interest.

      • That is shattering to have such an abrupt change is habitat. With drier and hotter conditions in California as the climate changes, will much of the forest ever be able to regenerate I wonder. The changes and adaptations must be interesting but it is so sad that much that was has been lost.
        Re Southern Africa, we have been to the South Luangwa National Park once and loved it. (We drove there from here and the journey turned out to be quite an adventure.) We also love the Okavango Delta and the Chobe River area. We are lucky to have been able to self-drive and camp on previous travels, but since Covid we have been staying put. Hopefully things will change, but the vaccine rollout here is being painfully slow so far …

  17. thank you for another fascinating post, Jet. very interesting and informative. i would have never guessed that otters live outside of water and the leafy ants marching on is a pure delight. beautiful photos of Athena. thank you again πŸ™‚

    • I smiled at your lovely comment, Wilma, so glad that I could share the mystery of otters and their earthly ways with you, and introduce you to the delightful leafcutter ants. My warmest thanks for your visit.

    • My warmest thanks for your lovely comment and visit, Michael Stephen. It was a bit tricky covering the whole earth on one page, so I’m happy you appreciated the effort. Cheers to you.

  18. What a wonderful mini-menagerie of some of the tiny citizens of the Earth, Jet and Athena! Many of us feel as every day is Earth Day and it is obvious the two of you do as you cover so much of the planet in your travels. Every creature has its place on the Earth, except maybe for us humans, and we should all celebrate them when we can. Lovely post.

    • Yes, I thought it important to note that the termite mound was dormant, because standing so close to one makes the photo more alarming. We have a photo of her hugging it, but I didn’t post that one. I like that you commented on that aspect, LuAnne, gave me a smile. Thanks very much for your visit and interest, and Happy Earth Day to you, too.

    • Yes, those termite mounds can get mighty huge. I’m happy you liked the Earth Creatures post, Amy, it was really fun to put together. Thank you for your visits today.

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