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Naked mole rat

Scientific name: Heterocephalus glaber

Country: Kenya, Somalia, EthiopiaNaked mole rat

Continent: Africa

Diet: Tubers & roots - radicivore

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical grassland

Conservation status: Least concern

Relatives: Damaraland mole rat, Cape mole rat

Description: A truly bizarre little mammal. Ten centimetres long with a four cm long tail. Almost hairless, except for whiskers, so appearing yellowish or pinkish in colour, depending on how hot or cold the mole rat is. The skin is wrinkly, the eyes are so small as to be almost useless and the front incisor teeth are enormous and stick out of the front of the mouth.

Lifestyle: They spend all of their time burrowing with nest-mates beneath the surface of hard-packed soil in dry areas. Tunnels are dug just beneath the surface using those giant incisor teeth like drills. The animals search for roots and tubers which they either eat, or take back to the main nest tunnels where they may be stored and eaten at a later stage.

Family & friends: Many mammals live in extended groups but mole rats are unique in that they live in a huge group ranging in size from 20 to 300 individuals, of which only one female will produce babies. The other mole rats behave as helpers, devoting their lives to digging and collecting food. This is brought back to the central nest through a complex tunnel system. This team of workers, with a single queen is rather like the queen and worker bees in a hive. The extreme hardness of the soil through which they tunnel means that a single mole rat could never survive on its own, but together they cooperate and triumph.

Keeping in touch: The queen's urine contain chemicals called pheromones which prevents other females in the nest from having babies of their own. She is also very dominant and the stress from her bullying also keeps the others from breeding. Other, more solitary species of mole rat, communicate with neighbours by banging their heads on the roof of their tunnels.

Growing up: The queen can produce up to four litters a year, each with between 12 and 27 pups in a litter. The pups will grow up to become workers in the nest, helping their mother to raise their brothers and sisters. For such a tiny animal, they can live for a long time, at least 20 years in captivity.

Worker mole rats eat their own droppings. This gives them a second chance to digest the fibrous roots that they feed on. They also allow other mole rats in the colony to eat their droppings, another way in which they help each other out (although we might not agree that this is such a privilege!).