Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mammals who behave like ants

We're all familiar with eusocial behaviour in insects - like bees, ants, termites, wasps and so on. There is a queen which produces a large number of sterile workers who build tunnels, nests and collect food, and there are specialties like the larger guards. They cooperatively care for the young produced by the queen.

I had no idea that there were mammals who had developed the same behaviour. Just 2 kinds - the naked mole rat and the Damaraland mole rat. I've found more info about the naked mole rat in the short time I've spent researching them today, so that's what I'll talk about.

The naked mole rat - a mammal which exhibits eusocial behaviour just like ants and bees.
The naked mole rat - image stolen from Wikipedia
It lives in networks of tunnels under Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia.

The queen is the only female who can reproduce, along with about 3 males. Her offspring become the sterile workers. They develop specialties such as burrowing or collecting food. The larger ones are more aggressive in the instance of an attack on the nest.

The queen must always defend her postion from other females, sometimes violently. If she dies, she is replaced by another female who becomes fertile and undergoes physical changes to better handle making babies.

They mine for large tubers, their main source of food. They eat the inside but leave the outside, allowing it to regenerate. They also eat their own feces.

They live in colonies of between 20 and 300.
They live particularly long for a small rodent, up to 28 years.
They're apparently immune to cancer.
They don't feel pain when exposed to acid or capscacin.
They are in no danger whatsoever of going extinct.

That's just incredible to me. I suppose this would be considered a kind of convergent evolution. Shame the universe is so damn big and everything else is terribly far away, I'd like to know if creatures on other planets have evolved the same behaviour.

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