Almost all land vertebrates have five fingers, but moles flout this rule. On top of their five digits, the creatures have co-opted a wrist bone to evolve a pseudo-thumb that increases hand-surface area for digging.

Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra at the University of Zürich in Switzerland and his colleagues tracked key molecular markers in embryos of the Iberian mole (Talpa occidentalis; pictured) and the North American least shrew (Cryptotis parva), a close relative that lacks the long, sickle-shaped bone. They found increased expression of Msx2, a gene that promotes digit development, in the area of the developing mole paw in which a wrist bone becomes elongated. The gene product was absent from this region in the shrew.


The pseudo-thumb is not technically a sixth digit, because it comes from a wrist bone, and develops later than the five true digits.

Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2011.0494 (2011)