Wild Profile: Meet the red-backed vole

Published: October 29, 2019

By David OBrien/Shutterstock

Red-backed voles might be the easiest vole species to ID. They get their name for a reason: the wide, rust-coloured dorsal stripe that runs from head to tail. Their other distinct attribute? Unlike most rodents, they don’t dig elaborate underground tunnels or chambers, they use existing burrows—abandoned by mice or similar-sized critters—or build nests under rocks, logs, and roots.

Mouse vs. vole? Which is which? (Voles are also called “field mice.” Confusing!) In general, voles are stockier, with shorter tails. Red-backed voles in particular have smaller eyes and blunter noses than deer mice. Their fur also gets longer, paler, and silkier late in the fall as the cold weather approaches.

You may have never heard of these voles, but science sure has. They’re an “indicator species”: an animal researchers can monitor to infer conditions about the environment. Forest-dwellers, red-backed voles are plentiful in places with healthy tree growth and canopy cover, but almost non-existent in dying forests or areas destroyed by clear-cutting.

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