Welcome to part 2 of the first-ever Weird Biology 2-part special! And today we’re picking up where we left off last time with the
Whether you like it or not.
Last time we got into what exactly makes each individual Naked Mole Rat so very very very strange, but now we’re going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. So keep your hands and arms fully inside the ride at all times while we get back into it with the Once and Forever King of Monsters!
The Naked Mole Rat stands head and weird wrinkly shoulders above the rest of bizarro animalkind- hail him, King of Monsters! No other animal has such a vast collection of weird traits. (I hope.) The Naked Mole Rat is one of only two known species of mammal to be eusocial. Eusociality is when a species has a caste system, with each caste performing different duties. Plenty of animals on earth do this, and you’re probably more familiar with them than you think! The weird part is that most of these animals are insects.
Like bees, most Naked Mole Rats are sterile females. Also like bees, Naked Mole Rats come in three main caste flavors: Workers, Soldiers, and The Queen. Frankly I’m no longer convinced we’re dealing with a mammal at all, here. (Also, I probably should have called this special “Queen of Monsters” but I already had my heart set on the title.) Like bees, every member of the hive (You can call it a “colony” as much as you like, it’s a hive, dangit.) works together to ensure their continued success. This is no small deal, as a Naked Mole Rat hive can have anywhere from 20 to 300 members.
Worker Naked Mole Rats are the most common caste by far (like bees). Workers dig tunnels, care for the young, and find food. They’re a brave, hardworking caste who deserve better than to be crushed under the merciless metaphorical boot of the upper Naked Mole Rat classes. Unfortunately, they’re still just naked tunnel-dwelling rodents and not capable of organizing or reading a book. Thus, they spend their lives toiling in the mud. (Remember kids, ignorance is the enemy! Knowledge will make us free!)
The next most common is the soldier caste. (Again, like bees. I think we’re really onto something, here.) Soldiers protect the hive from outside threats, like snakes or invading Naked Mole Rats from other hives. When a threat gets into the tunnels, worker Naked Mole Rats raise the alarm by screeching in terror and fleeing in the opposite direction. This summons the soldier Naked Mole Rats, who immediately leap into action. (Horrible, horrible action.)
Once the threat has been located, the soldiers stack on top of each other into a huge awful wriggling pile. Like a cheerleader pyramid, but with teeth. If for whatever reason this doesn’t intimidate the invader into screaming and running, the soldiers will attack by synchronizing their bites like a living chainsaw of inescapable wrinkly death. Most invaders just leave as soon as they see the soldiers coming.
And finally, there is the Queen. she is the largest Naked Mole Rat in the hive, and rules with a tiny wrinkled iron fist. Like most upper management, she wanders the tunnels now and again to make sure things are up to code. If they aren’t, the Queen will find those responsible and PUNISH THEM. (Naked Mole Rats are real believers in discipline, you notice.) Like bees, the Queen is the only fertile female in the hive. She spends most of her time having a completely ridiculous number of babies. Like, up to 900 babies in her life. However, UNLIKE bees, the Queen is not elected via birthright. (Naked Mole Rats use a slightly more egalitarian process.) See, any female in the hive has a shot at being in charge someday-
All she has to do is commit a little regicide first.
THE QUEEN IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE QUEEN.
Absolutely unlike bees, the life of the Naked Mole Rat Queen is a never-ending Game of Thrones episode. She likely killed her predecessor to attain her title, and she spends the rest of her days fighting off challengers of her own. (In between ruling with that tiny iron fist, of course.) After a new Queen has ascended, she grows to enormous (for a rodent) size and takes up to three mates. Soon, she will start producing stupid huge numbers of babies, and the hive will thrive again. THE QUEEN IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE QUEEN.
While your feelings on the Naked Mole Rat may be understandably mixed, we really have to hand it to them. They are the reigning monarchs of weird: a bizarre and wonderful mix of mammal, reptile and insect traits. They are true survivors, still thriving in the face of global change. If their tenacity and sheer survivability is any predictor, they will be around a long time yet.
LONG MAY THEY REIGN.
1. Ltshears, Wikimedia Commons
2. Jedimentat, Flickr
3. Tim Evanson, Flickr