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!