Naked mole-rats break the rules on nursing

only breeding female, or "queen." The largest combatant usually wins the honor of producing all the babies for the colony and being attended to, in insect-like cooperative fashion, by all the other colony members. That quirk in naked mole-rat society also helps explain the equanimity at feeding time, Sherman says.

"The queen is larger to begin with, and she is kept very safe and healthy by her colony mates," Sherman says. "She is able to concentrate all her physiological resources on those huge litters, on gestation and lactation. And she is able to spend plenty of time with her pups.

"This is one more reason why Heterocephalus glaber (naked mole-rats) are so interesting to biologists," Sherman says. "They live like social insects, the adults share food and defense tasks, they have the largest litters of any known mammal, they are closely related, and now, it appears, the young are willing to share mother's milk. These animals have evolved to break the rules, because of their extreme sociality."

But why not have 28 mammae, one for each pup? The biologists think that would cause more harm than good. "We hypothesize that larger numbers of mammary glands would incur increased costs, due to infections (such as mastitis) and mammary cancer," Sherman says. "Since the pups will share, and since their mother can spend enough time with them to feed every one, there is no necessity to have a mammary for every pup."

The study was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation of the United States, the South African Research Council and the Alfred Sloan Foundation. Braude is an assistant professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis and the International Center for Tropical Ecology. Jarvis is a professor of biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Sherman is the author of more than a dozen papers and several books about H. glaber, including Biology of the Nake

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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