Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia in Africa



Not a mole, not a rat

The forbidding environment of East Africa’s deserts is home to one of the most bizarre rodents, the naked mole-rat. These beauties wouldn’t win any pageants, but they are fascinating animals. Yes, these odd little creatures with pink, wrinkly skin dig and live in underground burrows the way moles do. Yes, they have skinny, rat-like tails. Yet naked mole-rats are more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs than they are to moles or rats and are the only species of mole-rat that has practically no hair.

Nude dudes

Why are they "naked"? Native to the desert regions of East Africa, which can be pretty warm during the day, naked mole-rats live underground. If it does get cold at night, the little mammals just huddle together in a mole-rat pile and use each other's body heat to keep warm. And since they spend their lives underground, they don't need hair for sun protection. It's hard to see, but naked mole-rats do have about 100 fine hairs on their body that act like whiskers to help them feel what's around them. Hairs between their toes help sweep soil behind them while tunneling.

About 25 percent of a naked mole-rat's muscle mass is in its jaws.
The dominant female, or queen, has 12 nipples to feed up to 27 pups.
Naked mole-rats can run both forward and backward though the maze of tunnels they dig.
The mole-rat family name, Bathyergidae, comes from the Greek bathos, meaning depth, and ergon, meaning work or worker.
Naked mole-rats have been known to chew through concrete.
Many people in Africa call these animals "sand puppies."
A naked mole-rat’s skin is so loose it can wiggle halfway around in it. Scurrying by other mole-rats in a tight tunnel is not a problem.
Lacking sweat glands, naked mole-rats are unable to self-regulate their body heat, so it fluctuates with the temperature of their environment.
Naked mole-rats have a whopping 18 different vocalizations (the most of any rodent) that are used to get their point across.
Like some humans, naked mole-rats grind their teeth during sleep.
Naked mole-rats live longer than any other rodent, with a life span of nearly 30 years in zoos.

Our first colony of naked mole-rats came to the San Diego Zoo from the Philadelphia Zoo in 1992. Since naked mole-rats feel most comfortable in small tunnels, we copied that setting in the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, using a series of Plexiglass tubes and boxes filled with wood shavings. The clear tubes allow our guests to see what the busy mole-rats are doing. We even have tiny signs on them that show guests which box is a feeding chamber, a nesting chamber, and yes, even a toilet chamber! We also play the radio constantly; the music covers loud or strange noises and helps keep them calm.

When we first placed our mole-rats in their new home, we observed them carefully to see how they would adjust to their Plexiglass environment. At first the colony dynamics seemed haphazard, and all of the individuals appeared easily confused with one another. However, it took only a couple of days to see almost ritualistic behaviors start to take place and to be able to identify the main players.

We like to keep our current colony numbers at around 40 members, sending additional animals to other zoos as needed. You can see them at the Children's Zoo, across from the Rio 4-D Theater.

Fortunately, naked mole-rat populations are in no immediate danger. They live in areas where there is little human development, so they are relatively undisturbed. Naked mole-rats living in Kenya’s national park system are protected. Let’s hope it stays this way for all the populations of this fascinating little creature!