On Rats and Royalty

I have to confess to a life-long love affair with a three-inch nearly blind rodent that resembles an uncircumcised very wrinkly penis with long yellowed teeth. I stumbled upon these creatures in a small zoo in Southern California – pink hairless and pressed up against the glass of a bisected warren that resembled the labyrinth of an Ant’s colony they lay snuggled against each other like shot down miniature zeppelins: the Naked Mole Rat.

  As I said it was fascination at first sight and the more I discovered about these creatures the more endeared I became. How can you beat a mammal who lives in a colony with the same social structure as bees or ants – the only mammal to do so, (it’s called eusocial) with one ‘queen’ who gets to have her own harem of about four choice males, and, who literally lengthens when it’s decided she will be queen but increasing the space between her vertebrae so that she’s long enough to bear the numerous litters of pups (about four a year with sometimes as many as 27 pups in a litter) and who controls the fertility or lack of it of the other mole rats around her by bullying them by shoving them repeatedly with her snout thus inhibiting any onset of reproductive hormones. There is a strict hierarchy with ‘worker’ or should I say ‘digger’ mole rats at the bottom – whose lives are devoted to digging out the massively long underground colony (naked mole rats never ever come to the surface) in a convey belt style manner. Next class up is the soldier naked mole rat – heavier and stronger than the worker, these guys (and gals) fight off intruders and are (if they’re buff enough) get to audition for the harem. (Picked out on parade).

 These underground colonies exist mainly in Africa, in desert regions and can be miles long with as many as 300 individuals. The Naked mole rat (or sand puppies as they are known locally) lived off the large succulent tubers or roots of desert vegetation. Obviously evolution has maximised the survival capabilities of these creatures whose other wonderful habits included basking in sun heated tunnels nearer the surface then going further down to join their chiller comrades to warm them with their little pink bottoms. Eating their own faeces to re-digest the fibrous roots they live off, rolling in their own shit (in specially dedicated ‘toilet’ tunnels) so that they are imbued with the particular scent of the colony and this demarks them from any intruder mole rat from another rival colony. Which, as true provincials, they will attack and try and kill upon appearance (classic Western plot – Naked Mole Rat comes to town).

Controlling their own metabolic rate so that they are able to shut down when the going gets tough. Yet despite their resting metabolic rate being 30% lower than expected they still out perform all other mammals re: energy spent in their lifetimes. Boy, wouldn’t that be great for these times! Imagine  – the fridge is empty, the credit card is maxed out and McDonalds is shut and suddenly you’re able to live off that stale donut at the back of the cupboard for weeks and have enough energy to mug a banker the next day!

It gets better – now the scientists have  discovered the Naked Mole rat might hold the secret to eternal youth. Fertile Female Naked Mole Rats never get menopause (love that!) even better old Queens breed just as well as young Queens. They appear not to age at all (i.e a 24 yr old mole rat has the body of a 2 year old mole rat) and they never ever get cancer.

  Now I know the best of us are guilty of anthropomorphism but it strikes me that there is a lot to be learnt from this unprepossessing rodent. Firstly, okay, the social structure does sound like a benign dictatorship (with only the top mole getting laid – now why is that a familiar concept?) but when you consider that Naked mole rats are so closely related (after all this is more than kissing cousins) their DNA is practically identical you begin to see some of the pluses of dedicating yourself to the community (who needs religion when you are serving the ‘order’). In fact there is an argument that they (like bees or ants) function more as one part of a whole organism as opposed to an individual.

Who would of thought it possible for a mammal? And just how powerful is environment in shaping culture? Hugely, I suspect. Interestingly, as opposed to the more traditional way of establishing ‘break-away’ colonies – the Naked mole rat colony doesn’t split as such, instead a couple of fatter (weight is important as it is an indication of potential sexual maturity) and lazier individuals with an inexplicable propensity to travel (I think I know this guy) simply wander off under the desert and start up their own colony at some distance.

 More disturbing when the queen dies or sickens the position of Queen is contested amongst the ‘soldier’ class with fierce fighting between the stronger females – sometimes for months; An rare instance where politics and reproduction fight it out – although strangely I am reminded of the Hallmark series ‘The Tutors’ with Rhys Meyer in the titled role, (who bears as much resemblance to Henry the Eight as I do to a mole rat although in actuality the real Henry the eighth did share some characteristics of the mole rat – small pink eyes, rather rotund) casting his eye about, and the vicious in-fighting of the ladies-in-waiting as they try to thrown themselves under the costumed (and often uncostumed) Rhys Meyer; such is the stuff of good fiction. I swear ‘Mole-Rats: the documentary’ is just around the corner as well as ‘Mole-Rats: the musical’ and  ‘Mole-rats: the rock clip’ And I’m thinking of adopting the animal as my totem. Other cute facts about mole rats – their teeth never stop growing and they keep them trim by digging and gnawing out their tunnels and they all sleep together in large pink knots to keep warm.