Naked Mole Rats: The Animal Kingdom's Most Functional Dysfunctional Family (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Naked Mole Rats: The Animal Kingdom's Most Functional Dysfunctional Family

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. Parenting is our theme today and thus far we've exploring the benefits and challenges of childrearing in Washington and looking at the new methods couples are pursuing to become parents, human parents that is. In this next story, we're going to head to another part of the animal kingdom and meet some parents whose techniques are, how do I say this, a little bit unorthodox. Sabri Ben-Achour brings this sitcom-like story of naked mole rats.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:58
Well, for now, this show only exists in my head, but the real world of mole rats is actually even stranger. Just ask David Kessler who manages these creatures at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:12
Can you describe them for me? I think that, I mean, I would do that, but I feel like I might be unkind.

MR. DAVID KESSLER

00:01:17
They're cylindrical, they have very little hair, they don't have any fur. They've got some hair between their toes like hobbits. And they actually have some hair inside of their mouth which keeps their mouth nice and clean while they dig because they dig with teeth.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:33
Those are some big teeth.

KESSLER

00:01:34
Those are incredibly big teeth. They're rodents so their incisors, which are they're front teeth, are constantly growing. They can chew through concrete, they can bite through a human hand. I've seen them do both.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:44
They are fleshy and, well, naked. Imagine a pink practically eyeless rat that looks and feels like the back of your elbow.

KESSLER

00:01:52
They're virtually blind because they spend their whole lives underground. Their skin is very thin and wrinkly and almost translucent.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:00
They're from East Africa and they spend their time burrowing around searching for hard to find giant roots to eat. And when they don't have roots for dinner, they eat...

KESSLER

00:02:09
Feces. The young will actually solicit stool from adults and that's their first food.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:18
Okay, why do they eat poop?

KESSLER

00:02:20
Why not? Well, they live underground. They live in an area where they don't get any free water. So they get all their moisture from food and it's a good early source of solid food.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:34
Hmm, poop. Anyway, another thing that's special about their families is they live kind of like honeybees or termites.

KESSLER

00:02:41
They are eusocial mammals, which means that they live like social insects do. They live in large groups of 20 to 300 animals called colonies and there's only one breeding female in the group who's called a queen. One to three breeding males, he's not the king. He's just the breeding male and everyone else is a worker or soldier.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:01
The queen is different from everyone else, she's bigger, longer, her vertebrae are thicker and she's the only one who has babies, like 20 at a time.

KESSLER

00:03:09
But everyone helps take care of the babies so it takes a village to raise a mole rat up.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:13
Well, it's kind of a tyrannical village. The queen maintains her tunnel kingdom through violence. Like, she beats up on everyone. Stan Braude is a senior lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis. He studied Naked Mole Rats for 30 years. He says living with momma mole rat is so stressful for her daughters and siblings that their reproductive systems shut down. That's how she stays queen.

MR. STAN BRAUDE

00:03:35
Under stress, physiological stress but also emotional stress there's inhibition of the reproductive side. So in a small colony mole rat system the queen physically beats up on her daughters. Shoves them around, bites them and physically stresses them and shuts down their reproduction as long as they're in her burrow.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:02
Now, this kind of setup or any kind of hive-colony situation posed a challenge for Darwin back in the day.

BRAUDE

00:04:08
He has a chapter specifically entitled "Problems with the Theory." He brought up queens and workers in honeybees. How could you get different morphs of workers if the workers were sterile?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:25
How do non-reproducing worker mole rats or bees pass their worker mole rate genes to the next generation? And how is it in their interest to be worker mole rats if they don't get to reproduce?

BRAUDE

00:04:36
The basic answer is there are other venues to spreading genes like the genes for being a worker than just having offspring. So if you spend your life producing lots of siblings than that can be more successful than spending your life producing a smaller number of offspring.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:03
And if you're the queen, it's in your interest to have helpers ensure the survival of your babies, babies who could one day split off to start new colonies. So there may be a lesson in all of this for human parents, parenting is difficult especially when resources are tight. So don't be afraid to enslave your family to build up a fear-based empire in the pursuit of large tubers. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:05:24
Want to check out these charming critters for yourself? You can find photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
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