At almost every zoo I’ve visited, there’s a crowd around the naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) display. For some reason, we find those ugly little rodents to be fascinating creatures. Kids will watch them scurry around transparent burrows longer than they’ll watch the lions. But even if you’ve been one of those fans, I’ll bet there’s plenty you still don’t know, so here are 14 fun facts:
1 ) Despite their names, naked mole rats are neither moles nor rats (nor are they totally hairless). They are more closely related to porcupines and guinea pigs.
2 ) Naked mole rats live in the horn of Africa and are native to Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
3 ) They are one of only two mammal species that are eusocial. Eusociality, a type of social organization in which individuals live in a hierarchy, is more familiarly found in insects like ants and wasps. There is a queen mole rat, soldiers and workers. (The other eusocial mammal species is another type of mole rat.)
4 ) Soldier mole rats defend the colony from both predators—mostly snakes—and foreign mole rats, which they identify as foreign by their odor.
5 ) Worker mole rats are celibate and spend most of their time digging.
6 ) The queen isn’t born a queen. She’s a female who has fought her way to the top.
7 ) Naked mole rats live almost their entire lives in darkness underground, which is why zoo displays keep them under dim, red lights.
8 ) A colony of naked mole rats can consist of 20 to 300 individuals. Their underground territory can be as large as six football fields.
9 ) The burrow has rooms for specific purposes, such as nesting, raising young, eating and, um, waste disposal.
10 ) They’re not blind. However, their eyes are very small and naked mole rats will often close them when they run through the tunnels.
11 ) A mole rat’s incisors can be moved independently of each other and even work together like a pair of chopsticks.
12 ) They are the longest-lived rodents, with a lifespan of up to 30 years.
13 ) No one has ever found cancer in naked mole rats; they appear to be resistant to the disease.
14) Scientists recently sequenced the genome of the naked mole rat, hoping to find the secret to its long life and disease resistance.