Blind, naked mole-rats not the inbreeders biologists once thought

At face value, blind naked mole-rats appear to be poster rodents for generations of inbreeding. In fact, many biologists who study the adorably ugly, pink, toothy, hairless critters that are the big rage at our nation's zoos long have thought that themselves. There is direct, observable evidence that they will tolerate inbreeding in laboratories and zoos.

But now a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis reports evidence that the rodents are far more adventuresome and sociable than previously thought.

Stanton Braude, Ph.D., Washington University lecturer in biology, studied 54 colonies of the subterranean rodents in Kenya since 1986. Braude has captured, tagged and released more than 8,000 mole- rats, in whole colonies -- some as large as 290 animals. Over a 12-year time span, Braude caught 21 of the tagged animals that had dispersed from their original colonies and had either formed new colonies or migrated into neighboring ones. He also confirmed the development of 20 nascent (new) colonies made of no more than a breeding pair and their fist litter of young. The findings strongly indicate that blind naked mole-rats leave their natal, or birth, colony, and seek new partners with whom to breed.

Braude's discovery is all the more interesting because blind naked mole-rats are eusocial -- they are the only vertebrate species known to have, like bees,ants wasps and termites, a queen, worker-breeder hierarchy. Researchers had assumed that this system goes hand-and-glove with inbreeding, and that splitting of an existing colony was the only way to form new colonies. Moreover, researchers had found scant evidence that small colonies even existed, or that a single breeding pair could be found alone, on the verge of starting a big family. Braude found proof of both scenarios because he is the only researcher to have followed wild colonies for so long.

"The classic explanation for eusociality in ants, bees and wasps is based on higher genetic

Contact: Tony Fitzpatrick
Washington University in St. Louis

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