Naked mole-rats live in the grasslands of Eastern Africa. They reside in burrows and tunnels underground. They have wrinkly pink skin, which fades into purple on the backs and tails of younger individuals, and large incisors. They use these teeth to dig their tunnels. Naked mole-rats measure about three inches long and weigh only 1-1.5 ounces.
Naked mole-rats live in colonies with one queen (the only female who mates) and dozens or hundreds of workers, both male and female. This is an unusual social structure for mammals, but there’s a lot that’s unique about naked mole-rats. For example, they cannot thermoregulate. Their body temperatures are dependent on the surrounding air. In order to stay warm, they huddle together or lay in tunnels dug close to the surface. These tunnels are heated by the sun.
Workers are responsible for expanding the colony’s tunnel structure. They form a line; the one in the front breaks through the soil (usually softened by rain) and pushed it backward. Then, a line of workers sweeps the loose soil back towards the surface where one worker kicks it up to the surface, making a molehill. One colony’s tunnel structure may be up to 2.5 miles long. The tunnels have rooms for food storage, lavatories, and nests.
Since naked mole-rats never travel above ground, they rely on a diet of the roots and tubers of plants. Their diet is high in cellulose, which is difficult to digest. In order to compensate, they have a lot of bacteria in their stomachs to make digestion easier. They eat large tubers slowly in a way that may let them continue to grow and continue to provide the colony with food.
The queen mates with a small selection of males at a time, and these relationships can last for years. The entire colony takes part in raising the pups. The queen can have up to five litters every year and one litter can contain anywhere from 12 to 30 pups. This is the largest known litter size for mammals. The pups are nursed by the queen for two weeks to a month, at which point they are ready to begin eating solid food. They are also able to begin helping with work, such as digging and carrying dirt, at this time.
The lifespan of naked mole-rats is unprecedented for small rodents. At a minimum, they live 10 years. Many have been known to live close to 30 years. The maximum lifespan of these little rodents is as of yet unknown.
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