A zoo has offered a rare glimpse into the underground life of a colony of naked mole rats after the queen gave birth.
The litter of mole rats was born at Bioparc, a zoo in the city of Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city and the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia, on Friday 18th September.
Mole rats are unique among mammals and have been of particular scientific interest for being near-invulnerable to cancer due to a special gene called p16, which prevents the disorderly growth of cells; the lack of pain receptors in their skin, and their remarkable longevity for their size.
This unusual creature can also switch from homeothermic (warm-blooded) to poikilothermic (cold-blooded) in situations where there is low oxygen, allowing them to go 18 minutes without oxygen and up to 5 hours with low oxygen levels.
They also create colonies where a ‘queen’ is the only one allowed to reproduce and who keeps a small number of sexually active partners, like bee and ant colonies where most of the other rats perform soldier and worker roles for their 30-year lifespan.
Most females are kept sterile by eating their queen’s excrement, which is rich in estradiol, a hormone that puts workers in a “rearing” mode to act as caregivers for the queen’s children and stops them having their own babies.
BioParc spokeswoman, Pepa Cresco, told Real Press: “They are sterile because they are suppressed by the presence of the queen, and their sexual organs are not developed. Therefore, they do not produce hormones.
“The queen’s faeces are rich in oestrogen and its intake causes the subordinates to develop maternal instincts and take care of the babies even if they are not theirs.”
The rats have thrived since they moved in from South Africa in January 2008.
Ms Cresco said: “We have two different colonies, each with about 50 rats. Each colony has its own installation which we monitor with 14 cameras along 10 metres (32.8 feet) of connecting tubes.
“We have had litters of up to 16 individuals, but not all of them usually survive. They measure about two centimetres (0.7 inches) at birth and grow up to 13 centimetres (5.1 inches).”
In the video, the mother rat breastfeeds pups and moves in her underground habitat, part of a project to recreate the subsoil of the East African Savannah where it lives in permanent semi-darkness and evolved its tiny eyes, short legs, and a disproportionately sized head.
Its remarkable teeth can separate and move independently to excavate the hard earth and create a complex system of tunnels that can be miles long in the wild, which it also uses to communicate through vibration, sound and scent.
The zoo is hoping that the bizarre video will open people up to the incredible biodiversity in the natural world.