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Posted January 12, 2012
Dispatch #6
Meet the Mole Rats

This is one in a series of dispatches sent from the road by photographer Joel Sartore.

Photo: Mole rats
Damaraland mole rats (Cryptomys damarensis) at the Houston Zoo.

Help Joel rename the Biodiversity Project

There are aliens among us. With buck teeth.

I found this out yesterday at the Houston Zoo, when a keeper introduced me to their Damaraland mole rats. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The size of a hot dog (with bun), these rodents from sub-Saharan Africa are nearly blind, but they have epic front teeth. And they’re one of just two mammal species that are eusocial.

The zoo staff had to explain that word to me. Eusociality is an extremely complex caste system animals developed in order to help their species survive. Bees and ants are eusocial. These mole rats live in a colony of up to 40 animals, with each one playing its part in order to support a single breeding pair. In their case, the shy ones that stay in the back of the group are the workers, while those in the front baring their teeth the most vigorously were the soldiers that live to defend the colony. The most aggressive one of all was a “big” male (the size of a Polish sausage, on a good day) the keepers called Triscuit. It’s amazing that they can tell ’em apart.

The Houston Zoo is unique in that they intensively work with their Damaraland mole rats from the time they’re born. That way, they can take them out into the public (to schools and public events) without anyone getting bitten, except the handlers now and then.

“People think we’re crazy,” said one keeper, “but we get them used to being picked up since the time they’re born. They’re great animals actually, though they can bite. Hard.”

In the end it’s those teeth that give the Damaraland mole rat its otherworldly appearance—teeth that stick so far out they can dig the tunnels they live in without opening their mouths.

Beats swallowing dirt all day, doesn’t it?

PreviousNext dispatch: “Martha’s Legacy”

See more animal portraits and learn how you can help at
www.joelsartore.com/galleries/the-biodiversity-project/.

To hire a National Geographic photographer or license photos, visit: nationalgeographicassignment.com and nationalgeographicstock.com.

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