What are naked mole rats?

Naked mole rats are a true scientific wonder. The world’s only cold-blooded mammals can survive 18 minutes without oxygen and feel no pain. They live in vast underground colonies in east Africa, but I met the blind burrowers in a very hot cupboard in east London. Chris Faulkes maintains a study colony at Queen Mary University of London and has created a facsimile of their subterranean desert life using umpteen plastic tubs and tubing, which allow him to spy on the mole rat’s extraordinary social life.


Naked mole rat queen

Mole rats are the only mammal that live like social insects, termites in particular. Each colony is ruled by a single breeding queen capable of pumping out dozens of babies several times a year. Like a social insect queen, she lives far longer than the rest of the colony, but with no age-related decline in her fertility, thereby allowing her to leave an extraordinary genetic legacy during her abnormally long reproductive life.

How do naked mole rats reproduce?

Other than the queen’s chosen mate, the rest of the colony’s job is to support her “Royal Reproductiveness” in her baby-making mission. Bigger mole rats take on the soldier’s role of defence, while the smaller individuals act as workers and spend their days digging for edible tubers by sweeping the tunnels, tending to babies or cleaning the toilet chamber.

Ninety-nine per cent of the colony will never reproduce. They can’t. The queen has put paid to any notion of parenthood by suppressing their sexual development. Both male and female subordinates remain trapped in a pre-pubescent state and don’t even develop adult genitalia.

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It is Faulkes’ belief that the queen keeps her subordinates imprisoned in their sexless state by low-level physical bullying. She is constantly patrolling her colony and giving her workers aggressive shoves that show she’s a strong leader. Her relentless royal tour, and the stress it creates, is what maintains the colony’s sexual suppression.

What happens if the queen becomes weak?

If the queen stops, or becomes weak, then other females become sexually mature, and they’ll fight to the death for the top spot. “It all turns very Game of Thrones,” Faulkes explains. If the secret to eternal youth is a dark, dangerous and despotic existence, I’ll stick to growing old disgracefully.


Main image: © Getty Images


Author, broadcaster, Nat Geo Explorer and zoologist