13 min read

The Mysterious Lives Of 7 Animals Who Make Their Homes Underground

<p><em>Flickr/Derek Keats</em></p>

As the weather turns cold, humans burrow underneath blankets for warmth. And we're not the only ones who like to burrow into someplace snug ...

1. Jerboa


This tiny desert rodent is a master of jumping, as you can see from his incredibly long back legs. These springy gams help jerboas escape from predators; in fact, some can cover 10 feet in one hop, if necessary. There are more than 30 species of jerboa native to Asian and northern African deserts - and this little guy is a lesser Egyptian jerboa (Jaculus jaculus) from Qatar. Lesser Egyptian jerboas are the tiniest jerboas in their genus, weighing in at just under 2 ounces and measuring around 4 inches on average (though their long, skinny tails can add another 5 to 10 inches). Unfortunately, not much is known about most species of jerboa, since they tend to be nocturnal and they live in tiny burrows.


Bilbies, or rabbit-eared bandicoots, are a uniquely Australian creature. Like bandicoots, they are nocturnal, long-snouted critters - but unlike bandicoots, bilbies have huge ears, soft fur, and longer bushy tails. There's nothing else like these adorable desert dwellers on earth: they've got the ears of a bunny, the legs of a kangaroo - and a black-and-white tail that they hold up like a flag behind them as they run.

What's now commonly called "the bilby" is listed as a vulnerable species. It was originally known as the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), whose smaller relative the lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura) has been presumed extinct for decades. The male bilby gets to be about as big as a rabbit - measuring up to 20 inches long and weighing around 6 pounds. Bilbies are solitary creatures, and generally dig and live in their own spiraling burrows, with tunnels up to 10 feet long and six and a half feet deep. They don't stray far from their burrows when they go foraging for plants and insects (never getting more than 750 feet away) but this is made easier by the fact that bilbies tend to dig new burrows every few weeks.


3. Burrowing owl

(Flickr/Martin Teschner)

This beautiful bird is a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), an opportunistic burrowing species who likes to reuse burrows abandoned by tortoises, armadillos, skunks, or other underground nesters. However, these owls can dig their own burrows as well, thank you very much, which can stretch 4 to 8 feet underground.

They are unique among owls because they are active at ground level during the day, rather than at night. Though burrowing owls suffer from increasing habitat loss, their range is still fairly wide - though getting patchier - from the Canadian prairies to the southern tip of South America. Mature burrowing owls grow to 8 to 10 inches tall, and weigh only around 6 ounces. When in distress or excited, they make a sound described as chuckling; young owls will make a rattlesnake-like hissing sound when disturbed.

(YouTube/Smithsonian Channel)

4. Pika

(Wikimedia Commons/Russellcollins)

This tiny herbivore is a pika, from a family of chunky little hoarding mammals native to the colder parts of North America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Pikas are also known as whistling hares because of the squeaking sounds they use to communicate. These nearly tailless rabbit relatives grow to about 6 inches and weigh between 4 and 7 ounces. During the warmer months, pikas gather caches of plants and seeds for the winter. These pikas in particular are Ladak pikas (Ochotona ladacensis) from the Ladakh region of India. Ladak pikas are generally herbivores, who live in alpine valleys in China, Pakistan, and India.

Like some other pika species, Ladak pikas build burrows because of the lack of available nesting spots in the alpine deserts and open steppes they call home; consequently, burrowing pikas tend to have litters twice as large as their rocky mountainside-dwelling relatives. Burrowing pikas are also considered keystone species because their burrowing and caching behaviors contribute so positively to local soil quality and erosion reduction - plus, other animals often make use of pika burrows or food caches. Sadly, because they are adapted to such cold climates, pikas are also among the most susceptible creatures to global warming.


5. Dwarf mongoose


This is a common dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula), the smallest species of mongoose native to Africa. Dwarf mongooses inhabit parts of eastern and southern Africa and live as long as eight years in the wild, growing up to a foot long and weighing around 1 pound. They like to settle down in areas with an abundance of termite mounds; these meerkat cousins often use the mounds as burrows and a food source since their diet consists mostly of insects.

Dwarf mongooses are notable for their matriarchal societies. They live in nomadic groups of up to 30 individuals in which the dominant pair is the older monogamous breeding pair and the subordinate individuals are usually their offspring, with the dominant female at the very top of the pecking order. These social critters also have incredibly quick reflexes, which help them catch prey and avoid being caught by predators like snakes.


6. Kangaroo rat

(YouTube/BBC Earth)

Kangaroo rats are known for their tiny stature and long, bushy tails - and, of course, their eponymous kangaroo-like hind legs. However, this family of little burrowers (of the genus Dipodomys) belongs among neither kangaroos nor rats ... nor even mice! The kangaroo rat's closest relative is said to be the pocket gopher. They tend to inhabit dry desert flatlands in North America, eating mostly seeds and the occasional insect (which they often stuff in their cheek pouches until they get home).

Kangaroo rats are incredibly well-adapted to desert life, getting all the water they need from seeds so that they don't have to drink water even once in their entire lives. They dig burrows up to four and a half feet deep, with multiple connecting passages, where they sleep during the day and store extra food. Their excellent hearing and huge back legs help them escape predators -they can even hear nearly silent owls swooping in, and they can jump up to 9 feet in one bound! This kangaroo rat hears a snake coming as he's taking a nap, and hops out to scare the snake off his turf.

(YouTube/BBC Earth)

7. Fennec fox


These adorable desert natives may be among the most recognizable on this list of burrowing cuties, because it has become popular to keep captive fennec foxes (Vulpes zerda) as pets. However, these tiniest of the canids are non-domesticated exotic creatures endemic to the Sahara region of northern Africa, not anyone's living room. Fennecs can range in size from 16 to 28 inches full-grown, and weigh 2 to 3 pounds on average.

Their huge ears (which can be half as long as their whole body!) help keep them cool throughout the scorching Sahara days, when they sleep in their burrows to avoid direct contact with the sun. Like kangaroo rats, fennecs are so suited to desert life that they don't need to drink, getting all their water from the plants in their omnivorous diet. For the chilly desert nights when they go out foraging, these little foxes have thick coats of fur to help them keep warm. The fennec below sniffing out someone else's burrow was one of two released back into the desert of Dahab, Egypt by some kind neighbors who came across them.