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Naked mole rats: A monarchic transition?

Hello everyone and happy holiday season! Caleb with the Elephant Care Team here once again! In addition to taking care of the Zoo’s largest mammals, the Elephant Care Team also takes care of some of the Zoo’s smallest mammals – the colony of naked mole rats!

Naked mole-rats are strange-looking but unique mammals. In addition to being the longest-living rodents (they can live up to 30 years), they weirdly do not feel pain the same way as most mammals do, nor do they appear to get cancer. However, their most unique characteristic is the eusocial structure within their colony.

Even though naked mole rats are rodents, they live in colonies structured much like many insects. Eusociality is considered one of the highest levels of social organization where a group has a single, dominant breeding female (the queen), and the rest work to serve the queen in varying tasks, including digging burrows, foraging for food, raising the queen’s babies, and protecting the colony. A single colony can have many generations of worker mole rats, all descendants of the single queen.

A naked mole rat queen rules with an iron fist and utilizes stress-related behaviors like physical force to suppress, maintain control, and hold power over her workers. In doing so, her body elongates with lengthened vertebrae, making her larger and more powerful! However, there comes a time with every queen where the sun shall set on her time as queen, and a new queen will emerge. But how is that determined? Well, it depends, and it’s something the Zoo’s colony is actively figuring out following the recent passing of our longtime queen.

In an article written documenting the Smithsonian National Zoo’s murderous rise of a new naked mole rat queen, the Zoo’s colony engaged in a Game of Thrones-esque war between multiple females jockeying for the new role as queen.

After reading about what could possibly ensue within a colony during the time of monarchic transition, we have been fortunate to observe a sense of peace within Zoo Atlanta’s colony. While it could be the constant playing of NPR on the building’s radio, it appears the colony is finding a new queen in the marketplace of new ideas. Whether they are going to continue without a queen long-term or they have submitted to a peaceful transition of power, we are continuing to monitor the Zoo’s colony during this transition and look forward to seeing what happens within the colony going forward.

Regardless of what happens, all hail our former queen! She was long-lived monarch and maintained peace and prosperity for many, many years. Huzzah!

Caleb U.
Keeper II, Mammals

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