Weird Animals - the Naked Mole Rat
I’m more than a mole. I’m more than a rat. I’m wrinkled and naked and blind as a bat.
Not Only Weird and Strange but Stinky! - the Naked Mole Rat
The following is a verbatim transcript from Mr. Heterocephalus Glaber who most people would call a naked mole rat. H.G. wants to set the record straight so I have promised to write this article precisely as he dictated.
“Ciao! In the interests of science and my own self-worth, I want to tell you the naked truth – that’s a joke, son – about me and my family. Yes, scientists have named us naked mole rats and we are one of 30 different species. But although we have skinny, rat-like tails and we live in underground burrows like moles, we are more closely related to porcupines, guinea pigs and chinchillas.
“And we are not entirely naked. It may be hard to see with the naked eye but we do have about 100 very fine hairs on our bodies that function somewhat like whiskers to help us feel our surroundings. We also have fine hair between our toes that helps to sweep soil behind us while tunneling.
Sharing is fine but this is ridiculous!
“We prefer areas with sandy soil and you can find us underground in the desert regions of East Africa in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Native Africans call us “sand puppies” and we prefer that you refer to us by that name in front of our youngsters. It’s very warm during the day in our burrows (average of 82 to 89 degrees F) and If it does get cold at night, we just cuddle together in a mole-rat pile and use each other's body heat to keep warm. Since we spend our lives underground, we do not need superfluous hair for sun protection.
This tastes a lot better the first time around. Read on and you'll see what I mean.
“Some people say we are bizarrely ugly and look like an overcooked, pink-gray, wrinkled sausage with buck teeth. Others think we look like a tiny, cigar-size, three-inch long walrus. But you should know that biologists are fascinated with our unique abilities. I’ll tell you more about this later.
“We are not totally blind as most people believe but after millions of years living in the dark, our eyes have shrunk so that we can hardly see. We do have tiny little eyes but they are located beneath our skin and fur. We often run through our tunnels with our eyes closed. Since we’re not looking where we are going, we can run just as fast backwards as forwards. Instead of sight, we rely on our sense of hearing, smell and touch with our sensitive hair to feel our way through underground burrows in total darkness. We are also very sensitive to vibrations in the ground that may warn of danger from predators.
I think my tooth is looth.
“We are herbivorous mammals and eating tough roots and tubers requires some very strong, very sharp teeth. Our front teeth also help us tunnel through dirt while we search for food. Like all rodents, our teeth continue to grow throughout our lifetime, but by gnawing on hard foods, we keep our teeth from growing too long. Here is why we are unique. We can move our front teeth independently, spreading them apart and moving them together, like a pair of chopsticks. Can you do that? Don’t think so. I have heard that some of my relatives at the San Diego Zoo are fed yams, carrots, corn, broccoli, and fruit, and their favorite food is a banana. What’s a banana?
I think dinner is this way. No, it's that way.
“We sand puppies are odd for another reason. We live in communities like those of many insects such as ants, bees, termites and wasps. Scientists call us ‘eusocial’ or truly social. Our insect-like colonies have one dominant, ruthless queen mole rat – she’s in charge of the whole kit and caboodle. She is also the only female to breed and bear young. She chooses one to three elite males to breed with and all the other members of the same family work together to raise our young and maintain the colony. An average colony consists of 75 mole rats but can range in size from 20 to 300. Our entire underground area may be as large as six football fields.
“Worker animals dig the burrows in which we live using their prominent teeth and snouts. Their large, sharp teeth make ideal digging tools. These four front teeth, two on the top and two on the bottom, are actually located outside their mouth. To keep from swallowing unwanted dirt, their lips close behind their teeth. They also gather the roots and bulbs we eat. Other worker rats tend to the queen and her babies. If a snake or other predator enters our tunnels the worker mole rats alert the soldier mole rats, both male and female. Just like a well-trained army unit, the soldiers run to defend the colony with their large, sharp teeth.
60 babies a year! Where do I go to resign?
Unique Big Mama
“Our queen is not born into her position – she must earn it. She is larger and longer than all the other mole rats and her major responsibility is to breed and have pups. Females will fight, even to the death, for the right to be queen. Once the queen is established, a remarkable physical change takes place. The queen actually grows in length by increasing the space between the vertebrae of her backbone. Her new elongated body enables her to carry large litters during her pregnancy and still fit through the narrow tunnels of the burrow. A typical litter is 12 pups but can be as large as 27. Gestation is 10 to 11 weeks so queens may have 4 of 5 litters each year.
Her position as queen is never secure and she must continue to fight off other females if she wants to stay in charge. The queen often inspects the tunnels and chambers and controls her colony by biting and pushing the other mole rats to remind them she is the big mama. Workers dig all day to bring her food so she can devote her time to reproduction and the care of her pups. Within a few weeks, the pups begin to explore the tunnels, and in a few months they take their place as part of the workforce. By one year of age, they are fully grown.
I'm staying here. It's messy out there.
Unique Food Source
“It’s true. I have to admit it. We mole rats eat our own doo-doo. But there is a reason. Our diet consists of roots and tubers which are very difficult to digest. So our stomachs and intestines contain microscopic organisms to aid our digestion. But in order to maximize the amount of the nutrients from our food, we must re-ingest our feces. Think of it like getting 2 Whoppers for the price of one. (Sorry, BK).
“But there’s more! Not only do we eat our own doo-doo, we also roll our bodies in it! Why? Because we have nearly lost the use of sight, so in order to identify the members of our colony vs. an intruding colony, we all roll around on the floor of our toilet chamber!. So everyone smells stinky, but familiar and identical.
“Researchers have found that we sand puppies live nine times longer (up to 30 years) than mice of similar size. In addition to our extraordinarily long lifespan, we stay in good health and show a remarkable resistance to pain, cancer and heart attacks. We don’t show the usual deterioration of aging such as menopause or decline in brain function. A leading aging expert declares, ‘They (naked mole rats) demonstrate a healthy longevity that all of us (humans) would like to emulate.’
“So don’t turn up your noses at our lifestyle or choice of foodstuffs. We may hold the clues to successful aging in your species!”
© Copyright BJ Rakow 2011. All rights reserved.
B. J. Rakow, Ph.D., Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So." This is a serious book about job search which readers say is enlightening but also fun to read.
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