Animals That Live In Dirt

Dirt! It’s underneath our feet, supports our living ecosystem, helps us grow tasty fruits and vegetables, and is the home to thousands of different species. Around 25% of Earth’s creatures use soil as their habitat, from Worms, Ants, Bees, Termites, Moles, Gophers, Armadillos, and Groundhogs. Animals that dig or live primarily underground are characterized as “fossorial” creatures. Lets learn about some of inhabitants residing in Earth’s soil!

Earthworms are one of the most common animal found in soil. Sometimes called “night crawlers” they are the soils aerators, turning and mixing soil, spreading out the nutrients to keep it fertile. They can dig down to around six feet, creating porous holes that help water and nutrients from above penetrate the ground. They can eat up to one-third their body weight per day as they extract nutrients from decomposing foliage. Earthworms are also part of the ecosystem through food for birds, rats, and toads, used in composting systems, and are bait for fishing!

Ants play a similar role in helping aerate the soil, in fact, they can turn over as much soil as the earthworm. Ants live in mounds called anthills and can contain thousands to millions of ants.  These are typically short hills of dirt with holes that allow for transport in and out of the colony. Ants play a crucial role in dispersing seedlings; they also move dead insects or decaying plants to assist with decomposition.

Subterranean termites are one of three species of termite, and the only one which lives in the ground. These termites build earthen tunnels underneath the soil that they use to connect to  wood. “Mud Tubes” as they’re called, connect wooden structures to the ground and allow the termites to being eating and start decomposition. The termite workers responsible for building the tubes need moist environments to survive, which is why soil is so essential to this species.

Many varieties of bees nest and tunnel underground. Unlike honey bees, Native bees of the United States (like carpenter bees) burrow in loose, dry sand or soil, and they prefer south facing slopes to enjoy the sun. These tunnels are fairly obvious from above ground, as they will be shallow conical dirt piles with a hole in the middle. Both male and female bees will build tunnels, while only the female will actually build the nest. These bees provide a significant ecological benefit by pollinating plants, as they are more efficient pollinators to certain plants than honey bees.

Mammals also live in the soil – moles, armadillos, and gophers are all mammals that burrow underground for their homes. Moles like porous soil that is easy for digging and they spend almost their entire life underground. They tunnel in a wide variety of environments, and they are most commonly found in areas with a variety of food as they can eat up to the amount of their entire body weight each day. Both moles and gophers build complex tunnels underneath the soil which houses their nests. Gophers, unlike moles, are part of the rodent family. They tend to live with other gophers, while Moles typically live independently. Both of these animals will burrow further down during the winter months.

Armadillos are native to South America and the most southern portions of the US including Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri. They prefer moist environments with soft soil, and they use their strong claws to dig for food and shelter. They burrow up to 15 feet deep, which they use for nesting and hiding from predators. Armadillos tend to be nocturnal – staying burrowed during the hot days and foraging at night.

Groundhogs, native to Canada and the U.S., are another rodent and the largest member of the squirrel family. Their tunnels are larger than that of the moles and gophers, as they can be up to 6 feet deep and 20 feet wide. They prefer wooded areas that have easy access to open fields, and they create up to a dozen entrances to their burrow, some in open areas for summer and wooded areas for winter. Groundhogs are herbivores and they build up fat during feeding seasons since they do not eat during hibernation. Other rodents like mice and rats tend to burrow in shallow ground during the day to avoid predators like cats, birds, wild dogs and foxes, and then will scavenge during the night.

Next time you’re walking through nature, you may notice evidence of one of these fossorial creatures and wonder at the complexity and whereabouts of the intricate habitats they build below our feet.

Sources: National Geographic, SoilsMatter WordPress,, Zephyrus, Life Under Your Feet, Science Learn, Fine Gardening, Wonderopolis, Have A Hart, Victor Pest, Live Science, Orkin, Cornell Dept of Etymology, Habitat Network Powered by Yardmap / The Nature Conservancy