Secrets of the Naked Mole-Rat Revealed

Researchers find that the naked mole-rat has been wildly misunderstood for decades

Front view of a Naked Mole-rat, hairless rat, isolated on wihte
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So maybe the lack of fur, beady eyes and exuberant teeth don’t exactly make for “cute,” but in terms of nature’s design, the naked mole-rat is a splendid creature.

Adapted to a life lived in tunnels beneath the hot African desert, their naked skin allows for excellent burrowing. They don’t need big cute eyes for their subterranean existence, and those teeth? Those teeth are so remarkable that they can not only chew through the tough underground roots that provide nutrition, but they can even chew through concrete when the occasion calls for it.

Unlike most other mammals, naked mole-rats are eusocial, meaning that, like bees and ants, they live in a colony with a queen. A few lucky nude dudes get to mate with their depilated ruler, while the rest of the gang works on foraging and infrastructure. And, it has long been believed, they inbreed. Which has kind of been the last straw for their reputation: They look like larva with teeth and they have sex with family members?

According to a 2015 study on the little darlings, evolutionary biologists have long been curious about the mole-rat's amorous behavior: “Why would this rodent have evolved to socialize and mate so differently from other mammals? From a natural selection standpoint – where advantageous traits are passed down to succeeding generations – what is gained by limiting genetic diversity by limiting the breeding pool?”

As it turns out, it looks like scientists had been wrong all along, according to researchers from the University of Virginia, and their study published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

UVA biologist Colleen Ingram and a team of researchers looked at the genetics of different mole-rat populations from Africa, and analyzed them in comparison to the genetics of a mole-rat population that has been studied for decades. They discovered that the groups of the long-studied mole-rats are "inbred" only because they all initially came from a limited, genetically isolated group of naked mole-rats from south of Kenya's Athi River.

The team found that larger wild populations from other regions are genetically variable; although they are eusocial, they are not inbred.

"We now know, from looking at the big picture from a much larger geographic area than previously studied, that the naked mole-rat is not inbred at all," Ingram said.

"What we thought we knew was based on early genetics studies of a small inbred sample from an otherwise genetically variable species. This shows that long-held assumptions, even from heavily studied model species, can and should always be questioned and further studied."

So there you have it. The naked mole-rat may be bereft of cuddly fur ... and have teeth that are the stuff of cartoon nightmares, but inbred? No way. Proving that science can be fallible, one naked mole-rat at a time.