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After a Murderous Rise to the Top, a Naked Mole-Rat Queen Reigns Supreme

Mole-rat monarch asserted dominance by giving birth to three pups on Monday morning—all hail her majesty

The "Game of Thrones'" Red Wedding has nothing on naked mole-rats (Smithsonian National Zoo)
smithsonian.com

When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die—and the same idea pretty much applies for crowning the queen of a naked mole-rat colony. For months, the hairless rodents at Smithsonian National Zoo have been engaging in deadly in-fighting; the colony dropped from 17 to 13 adults between the rodents’ summer arrival and this week’s dramatic finale.

As Natalie Delgadillo reports for DCist, the Monday birth of three naked mole-rat pups marks the official end of the colony’s battle for dominance, enabling the hairless, wrinkly critters to crown the mother in question their queen.

National Geographic notes that mole-rats are eusocial species, meaning they live in hierarchical communities overseen by a dominant female who is the only one to breed. This structure, which is most frequently seen in insect colonies (think queen bees and ants), finds the rodents competing for the right to bear offspring. The losers, Delgadillo writes in an October DCist article, are consigned to life as subservient workers tasked with taking care of the queen’s babies, protecting her and the pups from danger—a task they learn how to do from snacking on her poop (yes, really). A select group of two or three male mole-rats receive the additional privilege of mating with their matriarch.

The once and future queen—unsurprisingly, the largest mole-rat in the colony—was the frontrunner throughout the bloody battle, with spokesperson Devin Murphy telling Delgadillo that the remaining mole-rats appeared to be following her bidding without much objection. (Well, aside from the fact that “they’ve been fighting and killing each other,” in the words of zookeeper Kenton Kearns.)

Still, the queen’s hold over her fellow mole-rats remained tenuous until the moment she gave birth. As Kearns explains to Delgadillo, any of the female underlings could have staged a coup prior to this point—and, if the timing of the mole-rat war’s last casualty is any indication, one such mutinous mole-rat actually did revolt the morning of the birth, leaving keepers to discover her carcass just before spotting the babies.

Rachel Feltman of Popular Science writes that the queen weighs a strapping 81 grams. The colony’s second-heaviest mole-rat pales in comparison, weighing in at just 55 grams. But sheer bulk isn’t the only difference between monarch and minion: Research has shown that the queen is capable of sexually suppressing non-breeding males and females, rendering them infertile by effectively preventing the onslaught of puberty. Interestingly, once female competitors are removed from a colony, they regain their reproductive abilities in as little as eight days.

For now, the queen and her jelly bean-sized pups are settling into a comfortable post-war life. As Martin Well reports for The Washington Post, worker mole-rats will attend to their leader’s every need, bringing her food and helping out with childcare so she doesn’t even have to move. According to the National Zoo website, the babies will nurse from their mother for about a month, although they’ll likely start sampling solid foods within the next two weeks.

In a statement, the zoo notes that keepers remain “hopeful, but extremely cautious that the colony will continue to care for the pups and that they will thrive.” If the babies fail to adjust to life at the zoo, their fate is quite stark. The zoo's website states: “If the colony can sense that the pups are sick or there is something wrong with them, they may decide to stop caring for them or”—and this is really next-level stuff, so prepare yourself—“eat them.”

The queen may have successfully demonstrated her dominance by delivering this first batch of pups, but as Feldman of Popular Science writes, her work is far from finished. To retain her hold over the other mole-rats, she must reproduce again and again, allowing subsequent pregnancies to stretch her spine and create room for much larger litters. Ultimately, the queen may give birth to up to 30 pups in just one 70-day gestation cycle.

Kearns tells DCist’s Delgadillo that zoo staff are “hoping things will calm down” now that the queen has established herself as the colony’s leader. (You can judge the action for yourself via the zoo’s 24-hour naked mole-rat cam.)

But, he adds, nothing is certain in the surprisingly volatile world of mole-rat power struggles.

“When you’re a naked mole-rat queen,” Kearns concludes, “you’re always defending your position.”

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