Thursday, May 6, 2010

"They look a bit like a sabre-toothed sausage"

But It isn't just their unusual appearance that attracts attention: their behaviour is about as strange as it gets in the mammalian world.

For a start, these little creatures live in huge groups. On average, you will find colonies made up of 80-100 individuals, but sometimes they can grow to a 300-strong group.

More bizarre still is their social structure. They behave like the mammalian equivalent of a social insect. Dr Faulkes points to a mole rat that looks almost twice as large as any nearby. And it is clearly pushing around some of its punier companions.

"That's the queen," he says. "Even in these really huge colonies, there is only a single female that breeds. And she mates with one or two, or sometimes three, breeding males.

"And then the rest of the colony, of both sexes, have their reproduction suppressed and never ever breed." But the sex-free mole rats have another job: "The small ones tend to act as workers, so they carry out colony maintenance activities,and keep predators, such as snakes, at bay.

Dr Faulkes explains: "They behave like the mammalian equivalent of a social insect - they have many, many similarities with bees, ants, wasps and termites." Throw in on top of this the fact that naked mole rats also live for an unfeasibly long time for a small rodent - 30 years in captivity - and that they also seem to be resistant to cancer, so it is easy to see why scientists are so interested in them.
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