The north African Sahara desert is home to one of the world's strangest animals. Below ground, and in stark contrast to the extremes of temperature outside, conditions are stable and tolerable - welcome to the home of the naked mole rat.

Incredibly, without the protection of the burrow these saber-toothed sausages wouldn't last a day in the open desert.

A naked mole rat
The naked mole rat
Their underground tunnels make them difficult to study, but research has discovered that they are well adapted to subterranean life.

Naked mole rats dig these tunnels almost continuously in the search for gigantic underground tubers upon which they feed.

These tubers are swollen, specialised roots developed by some desert plants as a way of storing energy and water. The trouble is that the mole rats have no idea where these tubers are and so all they can do is dig away and hope that they will eventually bump into one.

Digging in this hard ground requires teamwork. Some workers at the front end of a tunnel will gnaw into the baked earth. A mole rats lips close behind the long, curved front teeth so that it doesn't get any of the earth into its mouth. Other members of the team behind these 'front runners' kick back the soil until it reaches one of the surface exits.

They can run equally well in both directions, so tight spaces are easy to cope with.  It is unbearably hot in these tunnels which is why they have lost their fur, but most bizarrely they live in social colonies much like termites or ants.

Naked mole rat tunnel system
The naked mole rat
Not all mole rats dig, a few which are a little bigger that the tunnellers are in fact soldiers! Soldiers can be male or female and spend most of the day lazing about in a large central chamber, saving their energy for an emergency such as the appearance of a snake in one of the tunnels.

After time spent digging the workers come together to relax, but one of the naked mole rats is very different to all the rest - their Queen!

Twice as heavy as her subjects, the queen is not afraid to throw her weight around. She is the mother of every worker in the colony and exists in a near continuous state of pregnancy.

At any given moment she can have up to two dozen babies pulsing within her swollen belly and can produce a new litter every thirteen weeks.The Queen is the only female which can produce young as none of the other females will become sexually mature while she lives. Why? Well, the mole rats have a communal latrine used by all the mole rats including the queen.

When the workers visit the latrine They deliberately cover themselves with some of the 'contents' of the latrine so that they can carry the scent of the colony. This enables each individual to be recognised and accepted by all the other members of the colony. But in doing so, they are committing themselves to a life of sterility because the queens urine contains a substance that suppresses the development of ovaries in others.

Young family of naked mole rats
Young family of naked mole rats
Just occasionally, one of her brood is raised differently - a daughter which will become a future princess. In the beginning, the princess enjoys a privileged, and lazy life, but it doesn't last as she has a destiny to fulfil.

The surface is a place where no naked mole rat can survive for long, but a princess will risk everything in search of a partner. Leaving the burrow in the cool of the night the princess will search for a males distinctive scent which she can follow to the safety of its burrow.

For now, the burrow contains just this single pair, but in a couple of months the princess would have become a queen in her own right and a new colony begins.

For related articles click onto the following links:

No comments: