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Wednesday 8 September 2021

Talking of naked mole rats...

BFS Man via Wikipedia Commons.
Social animals, naked mole rats live in colonies of around 60 individuals, but groups of as much as 300 are not uncommon. They have a single queen, and the workers pull together to help the community survive and thrive. When enemies threaten, they attack together, on cue, a naked army of rodent warriors.

To communicate, they chirrup, chatter, gruntle and squeak. If you’ve ever come within close proximity to a naked mole rat population, you’ll know about it.

Fascinatingly, it has been found that in sperm whales' calls vary depending on the region a whale is from, suggesting they have accents, and maybe even languages[1]. Now naked mole rat researchers think they may be the same[2].

Naked mole rats have been extensively studied by scientists because of their amazing longevity, surviving lifespans of around 30 years – ten times longer than equivalently-sized rodents! However, amazingly, scientists have only just started to study naked mole rat communication. Researchers have been employing machine learning to decipher patterns in the mole rat chatter and try to distinguish warnings from greetings.
Naked mole rat. John Trainor via Wikipedia Commons.

Colony to colony, they distinguished distinct noises, mostly differentiated by their pitch. The researchers even messed around with the mole rats offering fake calls to see how they’d respond[2]. Importantly, they did respond. Researchers think that this might indicate that naked mole rat communication is socially learnt in the way human languages are, rather than innately inherited at birth. In support of this theory is the fact that naked mole rats are pretty hostile to anyone who isn’t from their colony – except for pups, which they will sometimes adopt, take into their community, and presumably teach their own language to. In one experiment, researchers actually switched some of the pups that were born at the same time to different mole rat colonies: they found the pups were reared with the language of their adoptive rather than native colony, and sounded more like their adoptive colony if they were swapped younger[2].

Sound is not the only way that the naked mole rat communicates, though. They also follow a bizarre ritual of rubbing their own urine on themselves to distinguish themselves by smell. Naked mole rats are almost blind, so sound and smell are central to their community and their communication. Somehow, when I think of these underground tunnel-dwellers with their unique perfumes, I’m acutely reminded of underpasses.

why don't all references have links?
[1] Antunes, R., et al., (2011) Individually distinctive acoustic features in sperm whale codas Animal Behaviour 81.4:723-730 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.12.019.
[2] A. J. Barker et al. Cultural transmission of vocal dialect in the naked mole-rat. Science. Vol. 31, January 29, 2021, p. 503. doi: 10.1126/science.abc6588.

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