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Species of the Week: the Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Posted by on August 9, 2013

Taken by Jedimentat44

Lauren is a recent graduate in microbiology and has interned at the Society of Biology. She is interested in a career in science communication and writes for her own blog, Science Says as well as for the Student Hubs blog.

Contrary to its name, the Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is neither a mole nor a rat. Nevertheless, it is strikingly naked. This yellow-tinged, wrinkled, long-toothed rodent is arguably one of the ugliest mammals known, yet lives a fascinating and unique life.

Naked Mole Rats live in underground burrows throughout Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia in giant colonies as large as 300. In each colony, such as with many kinds of insects, there is one queen.

The queen is the dominant female, and may have even fought to the death for this honorary position. Since she is not born into royalty, she must fight regularly to maintain her position of power.

Her main role as queen is to be the only child-bearing female within the colony. She prevents the other females from producing their own offspring through the production of a pheromone in her urine as well as evoking stress in the other females through her domineering behaviour.

It would be a lie to say that these strange little rodents do not have any hair on their bodies. They do in fact rely on a few sensory whiskers on their noses and tails to navigate through the dark depths of the tunnels. The extra hairs between their toes help them to sweep soil behind them whilst tunnelling.

Each Naked Mole Rat in a colony has its own job. Since the underground burrow can be as large as six football fields, constant burrowing and chamber-building is required, giving a permanent occupation to the diggers. Others act as soldiers to defend the many different entrances to the burrow, some hunt for food, and some even become child-minders for the queen’s many offspring, which can be as many as 100 a year!

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