From the Files of the Odd, Overlooked, and Underappreciated: Naked Mole Rat

Photo Credit: Meghan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Naked mole rats are undoubtedly among the most interesting-looking mammals out there. They are wrinkly and toothy, have long rat-like tails, and are mostly hairless. Being naked has its advantages in the hot desert regions in east Africa. And if the nights get cool, they cuddle! However, they are not entirely naked. They do have approximately 100 hairs on their body that act like the whiskers on cats. It helps the naked mole rat navigate through the tunnels of their underground burrows where they spend most of their time. Not only that they do have hairs between their toes, which allow their feet to act like brooms in sweeping away dirt in tunnels!

Naked mole rats are eusocial animals (a new word for me!), meaning they have an advanced system of social organization, with a single breeding female, the queen. Everyone else in the colony is a worker with a job to do – defend the burrow, dig tunnels, help to care for young, or collect food. The colony may consist of up to 300 individuals. Within the burrow is a complex a network of tunnels and rooms, each with a different purpose. Some rooms are nurseries, while others serve as store rooms for food and others are bathrooms. These highly social animals also have a complex system of communication, with over a dozen different vocalizations.

Another interesting fact about naked mole rats is that they have a high threshold for pain, likely one of their adaptations to survive in the hot, harsh desert. And while other rodents have a high rate of cancer naked mole rats do not. They also live five times longer than other mammals of the same size, often up to 30 years old!

Happy Earth Day

It’s Earth Day! I like to think of Earth Day like New Year’s Day…it’s the beginning of a new year, and time to reassess how we live and to make new resolutions. The first Earth Day was in 1970 and marked the unofficial beginning of the modern environmental movement. The idea for Earth Day was inspired by anti-war protests at the time as a way to raise awareness about growing environmental problems. It was an overwhelming success, with 20 million people taking part in Earth Day events. It also led to the eventual passage of several environmental laws including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, as well as the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day has been celebrated worldwide every April since.

Yes, we no doubt still have work to do. So on this Earth Day I challenge everyone to think about ways to make a difference, both large and small. It is certainly difficult in the modern world to live sustainably. But there are things all of us can do to lighten our footprint and to make a difference.

I like to think in terms of numbers. I frequently use the example of a water bottle. To help curb plastic production and reduce plastic waste, use a refillable water bottle. At first glance this might seem like a drop in the bucket (pardon the pun). Yet how many times do you drink a bottle of water each day? Let’s say once, just for easy math. So in a year, if you use a refillable water bottle you’ve save 365 plastic bottles from being produced and disposed of. What if everyone in your family did that? Everyone in your office, school, or on your team? See? The numbers do add up!

Here are just a few things everyone can do:

  • Shop at thrift stores instead of buying new
  • Avoid fast fashion
  • Buy refurbished electronics
  • Shop locally
  • Avoid food waste
  • Reduce meat consumption
  • Walk or use public transportation as often as possible
  • Avoid plastic – bring your own straws and to-go containers; buy in bulk; use bar shampoo and conditioner
  • Buy less
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs
  • Grow native plants to support biodiversity
  • Turn off your car engine – no idling
  • Click here for even more ideas on the website

Each action alone may seem small and consequential. Think back to that first Earth Day. Each person who showed up may have questioned whether doing so would make a difference. Alone, maybe not. But together they added up to millions who certainly left a lasting legacy.

Microscopic Face Mites

I am fascinated with the microscopic world and all that goes on that is not visible to the human eye. If you are prone to become squeamish, read no further. This is a good one.

(D. folliculorum) Drawing credit – Wellcome Trust

One of those microscopic worlds is on our faces. That includes two species of microscopic face mites. These creatures are teeny-tiny arachnids living face first in our pores and hair follicles, sometimes several in a single pore. They have evolved alongside humans for so long, they now have pore-shaped bodies and eight impossibly small legs. Not that they need the legs – they don’t move much. Even if they did, apparently we wouldn’t feel it. So they say.

Of course there are scientists out there researching these mites. To date we don’t know a lot about them, other than the fact they their entire life cycle is completed on a human body. That means they do everything on our faces. They dine on whatever happens to be in our pores (dead skin? Oils?). They reproduce on our skin. And, of course, they defecate. For while after the presence of the mites was known to science, the thought was that these mites lacked an anus and that waste simply accumulated in their bodies until they died. However, science being such that it is, the research continued and revealed that these mites do, indeed, have a teeny tiny anus.

Don’t freak out. While this information certainly makes you think (and want to wash your face), the mites are not harmful. They have evolved over a very, very long time in a symbiotic relationship humans. While the research is still ongoing, scientists believe the mites help us by eating dead skin and harmful bacteria, and perhaps producing antimicrobial compounds. Those face mites are just two of the many inhabitants of the human ecosystem!

Red-Winged Blackbirds

Not long ago I was out on a nearby trail and passed by a large bush down in a gulley – and the bush was singing. I couldn’t even see the birds among the branches, though it sounded like there were dozens. The sound stopped me in my tracks.

Photo Credit – Mr.TinMD

These birds are almost always found in flocks like the one I heard. In the summer the flock size is smaller, but in the winter flocks can number into the thousands. They like wetland areas but are also found on grasslands, in thickets, and in forests, but always close to water.

What I really wish I could see is one of their nests – they are masterful. The females (who are not black and look like finches) weave a deep, cup-like nest between several close-together, vertical plant stems such as cattails. She does this by winding plant material around the stems, around and over so it’s well-anchored to the stems. Then she adds wet leaves, decaying wood, and plasters the inside with mud. The final touch is lining the inside with soft grass. The completed nest is up to 7 inches wide, and 3-7 inches deep.

Back in the 1930s a naturalist deconstructed one of these nests. It was woven with 34 strips of bark from a willow tree and the leaves of 142 cattails, some of which were two feet long. Think about that – a bird with no hands wove that! On my next walk I’m not going to look for the birds, I’m going to look for their nests!

Bug B&B

I am now the proud owner of a B&B for bugs. Why would I want to do that, you ask? Good question! Over the past months I’ve taken a special interest in bugs and the fact that they run the world – like this massive yet unseen factory that keeps Earth’s systems functioning. I’ve also learned more than I wanted to know about insect decline.

So I built a B&B. The point behind a backyard bug B&B is to provide shelter for the bugs and to support biodiversity in an increasingly manicured and paved world. Mind you, I’m fairly certain that my overgrown, unmanicured yard is a natural B&B, but building one was part experiment, part curiosity, part creative outlet, and part foundation for a book I have brewing. And it was kind of fun.

These built structures don’t have to be large. They simply need a variety of hidey holes and materials to attract different bugs. Solitary bees and wasps, for example, like logs with drilled holes, reeds, and bamboo. Centipedes, spiders, and beetles seek out lose bark and dead, decaying wood. Attract ladybugs with pinecones, straw, sticks, and dry leaves.

A bug hotel needs a roof too, apparently, which I find slightly ironic. They also should be placed in a sunny spot, out of the wind, and near flowering plants if possible. The best time to build a bug B&B is in late summer or early fall since that’s when many bugs are laying eggs and/or seeking shelter. While I’m a few months behind, the B&B is complete and I’m curious to see who will book a room. Let the experiment begin!