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1.  Social Structure Predicts Genital Morphology in African Mole-Rats 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(10):e7477.
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) exhibit a wide range of social structures, from solitary to eusocial. We previously found a lack of sex differences in the external genitalia and morphology of the perineal muscles associated with the phallus in the eusocial naked mole-rat. This was quite surprising, as the external genitalia and perineal muscles are sexually dimorphic in all other mammals examined. We hypothesized that the lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats might be related to their unusual social structure.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We compared the genitalia and perineal muscles in three African mole-rat species: the naked mole-rat, the solitary silvery mole-rat, and the Damaraland mole-rat, a species considered to be eusocial, but with less reproductive skew than naked mole-rats. Our findings support a relationship between social structure, mating system, and sexual differentiation. Naked mole-rats lack sex differences in genitalia and perineal morphology, silvery mole-rats exhibit sex differences, and Damaraland mole-rats are intermediate.
The lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats is not an attribute of all African mole-rats, but appears to have evolved in relation to their unusual social structure and reproductive biology.
PMCID: PMC2759003  PMID: 19829697
2.  Eusociality in African mole-rats: new insights from patterns of genetic relatedness in the Damaraland mole-rat (Cryptomys damarensis). 
After the discovery of eusociality in the naked mole-rat, it was proposed that inbreeding and high colony relatedness in this species were the major underlying factors driving cooperative breeding in African molerats. By contrast, field and laboratory studies of the eusocial Damaraland mole-rat (Cryptomys damarensis) have raised the possibility that this species is an obligate outbreeder, although the build-up of inbreeding over several generations could still occur. Using microsatellite markers, we show that most breeding pairs in wild colonies of the Damaraland mole-rat are indeed unrelated (R = 0.02 +/- 0.04) and that mean colony relatedness (R = 0.46 +/- 0.01), determined across 15 colonies from three separate populations, is little more than half that previously identified in naked mole-rats. This finding demonstrates that normal familial levels of relatedness are sufficient for the occurrence of eusociality in mammals. Variation in the mean colony relatedness among populations provides support both for the central role played by ecological constraints in cooperative breeding and for the suggestion that inbreeding in naked mole-rats is a response to extreme constraints on dispersal. Approaches that determine the relative importance of an array of extrinsic factors in driving social evolution in African mole-rats are now required.
PMCID: PMC1690998  PMID: 12028759
3.  Ecological constraints drive social evolution in the African mole-rats. 
The African mole-rats (family Bathyergidae) are subterranean hystricomorph rodents occurring in a variety of habitats and displaying levels of sociality which range from solitary to eusocial, making them a unique mammalian taxonomic group to test ecological influences on sociality. Here, we use an extensive DNA-based phylogeny and comparative analysis to investigate the relationship between ecology, sociality and evolution within the family. Mitochondrial cytochrome-b and 12s rRNA trees reveal that the solitary species are monophyletic when compared to the social species. The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is ancestral and divergent from the Damaraland mole-rat (Cryptomys damarensis), supporting previous findings that have suggested the multiple evolution of eusociality within the family. The Cryptomys genus is species-rich and contains taxa exhibiting different levels of sociality, which can be divided into two distinct clades. A total of seven independent comparisons were generated within the phylogeny, and three ecological variables were significantly correlated with social group size: geophyte density (p < 0.05), mean months per year of rainfall greater than 25 mm (p < 0.001), and the coefficient of rainfall variation (p = 0.001). These results support the food-aridity hypothesis for the evolution of highly social cooperative behaviour in the Bathyergidae, and are consistent with the current theoretical framework for skew theory.
PMCID: PMC1688729  PMID: 9404025
4.  Specific Paucity of Unmyelinated C-Fibers in Cutaneous Peripheral Nerves of the African Naked-Mole Rat: Comparative Analysis Using Six Species of Bathyergidae 
The Journal of Comparative Neurology  2012;520(12):2785-2803.
In mammalian peripheral nerves, unmyelinated C-fibers usually outnumber myelinated A-fibers. By using transmission electron microscopy, we recently showed that the saphenous nerve of the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) has a C-fiber deficit manifested as a substantially lower C:A-fiber ratio compared with other mammals. Here we determined the uniqueness of this C-fiber deficit by performing a quantitative anatomical analysis of several peripheral nerves in five further members of the Bathyergidae mole-rat family: silvery (Heliophobius argenteocinereus), giant (Fukomys mechowii), Damaraland (Fukomys damarensis), Mashona (Fukomys darlingi), and Natal (Cryptomys hottentotus natalensis) mole-rats. In the largely cutaneous saphenous and sural nerves, the naked mole-rat had the lowest C:A-fiber ratio (∼1.5:1 compared with ∼3:1), whereas, in nerves innervating both skin and muscle (common peroneal and tibial) or just muscle (lateral/medial gastrocnemius), this pattern was mostly absent. We asked whether lack of hair follicles alone accounts for the C-fiber paucity by using as a model a mouse that loses virtually all its hair as a consequence of conditional deletion of the β-catenin gene in the skin. These β-catenin loss-of function mice (β-cat LOF mice) displayed only a mild decrease in C:A-fiber ratio compared with wild-type mice (4.42 compared with 3.81). We suggest that the selective cutaneous C-fiber deficit in the cutaneous nerves of naked mole-rats is unlikely to be due primarily to lack of skin hair follicles. Possible mechanisms contributing to this unique peripheral nerve anatomy are discussed. J. Comp. Neurol. 520:2785–2803, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
PMCID: PMC3410526  PMID: 22528859
naked mole-rat; C-fiber; A-fiber; Remak bundle; nociceptor; Bathyergidae
Hormones and behavior  2008;54(2):278-285.
Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are eusocial rodents that live in large subterranean colonies including a single breeding female and 1-3 breeding males; all other members of the colony, known as subordinates, are reproductively suppressed. We recently found that naked mole-rats lack many of the sex differences in the brain and spinal cord commonly found in other rodents. Instead, neural morphology is influenced by breeding status, such that breeders, regardless of sex, have more neurons than subordinates in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH), and larger overall volumes of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST), paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and medial amygdala (MeA). To begin to understand how breeding status influences brain morphology, we examined the distribution of androgen receptor (AR) immunoreactivity in gonadally intact breeders and subordinates of both sexes. All animals had AR+ nuclei in many of the same regions positive for AR in other mammals, including the VMH, BST, PVN, MeA, and the ventral portion of the premammillary nucleus (PMv). We also observed diffuse labeling throughout the pre-optic area demonstrating that distribution of the AR protein in presumptive reproductive brain nuclei is well-conserved, even in a species that exhibits remarkably little sexual dimorphism. In contrast to other rodents, however, naked mole-rats lacked AR+ nuclei in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and hippocampus. Males had more AR+ nuclei in the MeA, VMH, and PMv than did females. Surprisingly, breeders had significantly fewer AR+ nuclei than subordinates in all brain regions examined (VMH, BST, PVN, MeA, and PMv). Thus, social status is strongly correlated with AR immunoreactivity in this eusocial species.
PMCID: PMC2630401  PMID: 18455726
androgen receptor; bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; medial amygdala; naked mole-rat; paraventricular nucleus; plasticity; premammillary nucleus; sex difference; social status; testosterone; ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus
6.  Inbreeding avoidance and reproductive skew in a cooperative mammal. 
In animal social groups, socially subordinate individuals frequently show low reproductive success or completely fail to breed. This suppression of subordinate reproduction is currently typically attributed to control by dominant individuals. However, subordinates in cooperative groups often lack access to unrelated mates, and an alternative possibility is that their reproduction is limited by inbreeding avoidance. Using the eusocial Damaraland mole-rat Cryptomys damarensis, this paper provides the first experimental evidence, to our knowledge, for this explanation. Subordinate, non-breeding female mole-rats were given access to unrelated mates while remaining in the presence of dominant females, and many became reproductively active soon after unrelated males were introduced. Inbreeding avoidance and the availability of unrelated mates provides a plausible and untested explanation for variation in reproductive skew across animal societies.
PMCID: PMC1690596  PMID: 10819150
7.  Neuroendocrinology and Sexual Differentiation in Eusocial Mammals 
Frontiers in neuroendocrinology  2009;30(4):519-533.
Sexual differentiation of the mammalian nervous system has been studied intensively for over 25 years. Most of what we know, however, comes from work on relatively non-social species in which direct reproduction (i.e., production of offspring) is virtually the only route to reproductive success. In social species, an individual’s inclusive fitness may include contributions to the gene pool that are achieved by supporting the reproductive efforts of close relatives; this feature is most evident in eusocial organisms. Here, we review what is known about neuroendocrine mechanisms, sexual differentiation, and effects of social status on the brain and spinal cord in two eusocial mammals: the naked mole-rat and Damaraland mole-rat. These small rodents exhibit the most rigidly organized reproductive hierarchy among mammals, with reproduction suppressed in a majority of individuals. Our findings suggest that eusociality may be associated with a relative lack of sex differences and a reduced influence of gonadal hormones on some functions to which these hormones are usually tightly linked. We also identify neural changes accompanying a change in social and reproductive status, and discuss the implications of our findings for understanding the evolution of sex differences and the neuroendocrinology of reproductive suppression.
PMCID: PMC2748139  PMID: 19416733
naked mole-rat; Damaraland mole-rat; sex difference; social status; reproductive hierarchy; eusociality; social system
8.  Reproductive suppression in female Damaraland mole-rats Cryptomys damarensis: dominant control or self-restraint? 
Colonies of Damaraland mole-rats Cryptomys damarensis exhibit a high reproductive skew. Typically one female breeds and the others are anovulatory. Two models, the dominant control model (DCM) and the self-restraint model (SRM), have been proposed to account for this reproductive suppression. The DCM proposes that suppression is under the control of the dominant breeder and is imposed by mechanisms such as aggression, pheromones and interference with copulation, whereas the SRM does not involve aggression directed towards non-breeders and may function in order to minimize inbreeding. We investigated potential proximate mechanisms involved in the suppression of females in a series of experiments. Socially induced stress through aggression did not appear to be responsible for anovulation. Nor did breeders actively interfere with subordinate copulation. Females were physiologically suppressed when housed in intact colonies. However, as predicted by the DCM, they did not become reproductively active when removed from the presence of breeders. We found no evidence that pheromonal cues block ovulation. We suggest that the SRM is the basic model found in the Damaraland mole-rat and that self-restraint functions in order to minimize inbreeding by restricting reproduction until an unrelated male is present. This would explain the rapid onset of reproductive activation in females when paired with an unrelated male, as demonstrated in this study.
PMCID: PMC1088686  PMID: 11370962
9.  Absence of histamine-induced itch in the African naked mole-rat and "rescue" by Substance P 
Molecular Pain  2010;6:29.
Recent research has proposed a pathway in which sensory neurons expressing the capsaicin activated ion channel TRPV1 are required for histamine-induced itch and subsequent scratching behavior. We examined histamine-induced itch in the African naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) and found that although naked mole-rats display innate scratching behavior, histamine was unable to evoke increased scratching as is observed in most mouse strains. Using calcium imaging, we examined the histamine sensitivity of naked mole-rat dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons and identified a population of small diameter neurons activated by histamine, the majority of which are also capsaicin-sensitive. This suggested that naked mole-rat sensory neurons are activated by histamine, but that spinal dorsal horn processing of sensory information is not the same as in other rodents. We have previously shown that naked mole-rats naturally lack substance P (SP) in cutaneous C-fibers, but that the neurokinin-1 receptor is expressed in the superficial spinal cord. This led us to investigate if SP deficiency plays a role in the lack of histamine-induced scratching in this species. After intrathecal administration of SP into the spinal cord we observed robust scratching behavior in response to histamine injection. Our data therefore support a model in which TRPV1-expressing sensory neurons are important for histamine-induced itch. In addition, we demonstrate a requirement for active, SP-induced post-synaptic drive to enable histamine sensitive afferents to drive itch-related behavior in the naked mole-rat. These results illustrate that it is altered dorsal horn connectivity of nociceptors that underlies the lack of itch and pain-related behavior in the naked mole-rat.
PMCID: PMC2886013  PMID: 20497578
10.  Body Temperature Patterns and Rhythmicity in Free-Ranging Subterranean Damaraland Mole-Rats, Fukomys damarensis 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e26346.
Body temperature (Tb) is an important physiological component that affects endotherms from the cellular to whole organism level, but measurements of Tb in the field have been noticeably skewed towards heterothermic species and seasonal comparisons are largely lacking. Thus, we investigated patterns of Tb patterns in a homeothermic, free-ranging small mammal, the Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis) during both the summer and winter. Variation in Tb was significantly greater during winter than summer, and greater among males than females. Interestingly, body mass had only a small effect on variation in Tb and there was no consistent pattern relating ambient temperature to variation in Tb. Generally speaking, it appears that variation in Tb patterns varies between seasons in much the same way as in heterothermic species, just to a lesser degree. Both cosinor analysis and Fast Fourier Transform analysis revealed substantial individual variation in Tb rhythms, even within a single colony. Some individuals had no Tb rhythms, while others appeared to exhibit multiple rhythms. These data corroborate previous laboratory work showing multiplicity of rhythms in mole-rats and suggest the variation seen in the laboratory is a true indicator of the variation seen in the wild.
PMCID: PMC3196572  PMID: 22028861
11.  High molecular weight hyaluronan mediates the cancer resistance of the naked mole-rat 
Nature  2013;499(7458):346-349.
The naked mole-rat displays exceptional longevity, with a maximum lifespan exceeding 30 years1–3. This is the longest reported lifespan for a rodent species and is especially striking considering the small body mass of the naked mole-rat. In comparison, a similarly sized house mouse has a maximum lifespan of 4 years4,5. In addition to their longevity, naked mole-rats show an unusual resistance to cancer. Multi-year observations of large naked mole-rat colonies did not detect a single incidence of cancer2,6. Here we identify a mechanism responsible for the naked mole-rat’s cancer resistance. We found that naked mole-rat fibroblasts secrete extremely high molecular weight hyaluronan (HA), which is over five times larger than human or mouse HA. This high molecular weight HA accumulates abundantly in naked mole rat tissues due to the decreased activity of HA-degrading enzymes and a unique sequence of hyaluronan synthase 2 (HAS2). Furthermore, the naked mole-rat cells are more sensitive to HA signaling, as the naked mole rat cells have a higher affinity to HA than the mouse or human cells. Perturbation of the signaling pathways sufficient for malignant transformation of mouse fibroblasts fails to transform naked mole-rat cells. However, once high molecular weight HA is removed by either knocking down HAS2 or overexpressing the HA-degrading enzyme, Hyal2, naked mole-rat cells become susceptible to malignant transformation and readily form tumors in mice. We speculate that naked mole-rats have evolved a higher concentration of HA in the skin to provide skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels. This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity to this species.
PMCID: PMC3720720  PMID: 23783513
12.  The Long Gestation of the Small Naked Mole-Rat (Heterocephalus glaber RÜPPELL, 1842) Studied with Ultrasound Biomicroscopy and 3D-Ultrasonography 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(3):e17744.
The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is one of the two known mammalian species that live in a eusocial population structure. Here we investigate the exceptionally long gestation period of 70 days observed in the mole-rat queen. The course of seven successful pregnancies in two individuals was recorded in a colony of captive naked mole-rats using ultrasound biomicroscopy (UBM) and 3D-ultrasonography. We establish a catalogue of basic reference ultrasound data for this species by describing the ultrasonographic appearance of reproductive organs, calculating growth curves to predict gestational age and defining ultrasonographic milestones to characterize pregnancy stages. Mean litter size was 10.9±2.7, of which 7.2±1.5 survived the weaning period. Mean interbirth interval was 128.8±63.0 days. The reproductive success in our colony did not differ from previously published data. In the queen the active corpora lutea had an anechoic, fluid filled centre. Using UBM, pregnancy could be detected 53 days before parturition. The period of embryonic development is assumed to last until 30 days before parturition. Embryonic resorptions were detected frequently in the queen, indicating that this might be an ordinary event in this species. We discuss the extraordinary long gestation period of this small rodent and postulate that the long gestation is beneficial to both the eusocial structure and longevity. An increased litter size, twice as large as for other rodents of similar size, seemingly compensates for the doubling of pregnancy length. We demonstrate that the lifetime reproductive effort of a naked mole-rat queen is equivalent to the mass of offspring that would be produced if all of the females of a colony would be reproducing.
PMCID: PMC3049790  PMID: 21408185
13.  Genome sequencing reveals insights into physiology and longevity of the naked mole rat 
Nature  2011;479(7372):223-227.
The naked mole rat (NMR, Heterocephalus glaber) is a strictly subterranean, extraordinarily long-lived eusocial mammal1. Although the size of a mouse, its maximum lifespan exceeds 30 years and makes this animal the longest living rodent. NMRs show negligible senescence, no age-related increase in mortality, and high fecundity until death2. In addition to delayed aging, NMRs are resistant to both spontaneous cancer and experimentally induced tumorigenesis3,4. NMRs pose a challenge to the theories that link aging, cancer and redox homeostasis. Although characterized by significant oxidative stress5, the NMR proteome does not show age-related susceptibility to oxidative damage nor increased ubiquitination6. NMRs naturally reside in large colonies with a single breeding female, the “queen,” who suppresses the sexual maturity of her subordinates11. NMRs also live in full darkness, at low oxygen and high carbon dioxide concentrations7, and are unable to sustain thermogenesis8 nor feel certain types of pain9,10. Here we report sequencing and analysis of the NMR genome, which revealed unique genome features and molecular adaptations consistent with cancer resistance, poikilothermy, hairlessness, altered visual function, circadian rhythms and taste sensing, and insensitivity to low oxygen. This information provides insights into NMR’s exceptional longevity and capabilities to live in hostile conditions, in the dark and at low oxygen. The extreme traits of NMR, together with the reported genome and transcriptome information, offer unprecedented opportunities for understanding aging and advancing many other areas of biological and biomedical research.
PMCID: PMC3319411  PMID: 21993625
14.  Social and Hormonal Triggers of Neural Plasticity in Naked Mole-Rats 
Behavioural brain research  2010;218(1):234-239.
Naked mole-rats are eusocial rodents that live in large social groups with a strict reproductive hierarchy. In each colony only a few individuals breed; all others are non-reproductive subordinates. We previously showed that breeders have increased volume of several brain regions linked to reproduction: the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTp), and the medial amygdala (MeA). Breeders also have more large motoneurons in Onuf’s nucleus (ON) in the spinal cord, a cell group innervating perineal muscles that attach to the genitalia. Here, we sought to determine triggers for the neural changes seen in breeders. Specifically, we compared four groups of animals: subordinates, paired animals that did not reproduce, gonadally intact breeders, and gonadectomized breeders. We find that pairing alone is sufficient to cause breeder-like changes in volume of the PVN and cell size distribution in ON. In contrast, increases in BSTp volume were seen only in animals that actually reproduced. Those changes that were seen in successful breeders appear to be independent of gonadal steroids because long-term gonadectomy did not reverse the breeder-like neural changes in the PVN, BSTp or ON, although a trend for gonadectomized animals having larger MeA volumes was detected. Thus, neural changes associated with breeding status in naked mole-rats may be triggered by different aspects of the social and reproductive environment; once changes occur they are largely independent of gonadal hormones and may be permanent.
PMCID: PMC3022096  PMID: 21130812
bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; naked mole-rat; neuroplasticity; Onuf’s nucleus; paraventricular nucleus; social status
15.  Kin discrimination and female mate choice in the naked mole-rat Heterocephalus glaber. 
Naked mole-rats are fossorial, eusocial rodents that naturally exhibit high levels of inbreeding. Persistent inbreeding in animals often results in a substantial decline in fitness and, thus, dispersal and avoidance of kin as mates are two common inbreeding avoidance mechanisms. In the naked mole-rat evidence for the former has recently been found. Here we address the latter mechanism by investigating kin recognition and female mate choice using a series of choice tests in which the odour, social and mate preferences of females were determined. Discrimination by females appears to be dependent on their reproductive status. Reproductively active females prefer to associate with unfamiliar males, whereas reproductively inactive females do not discriminate. Females do not discriminate between kin and non-kin suggesting that the criterion for recognition is familiarity, not detection of genetic similarity per se. In the wild, naked mole-rats occupy discrete burrow systems and dispersal and mixing with non-kin is thought to be comparatively rare. Thus, recognition by familiarity may function as a highly efficient kin recognition mechanism in the naked mole-rat. A preference by reproductively active females for unfamiliar males is interpreted as inbreeding avoidance. These findings suggest that, despite an evolutionary history of close inbreeding, naked mole-rats may not be exempt from the effects of inbreeding depression and will attempt to outbreed should the opportunity arise.
PMCID: PMC1690316  PMID: 10584337
16.  RNA Sequencing Reveals Differential Expression of Mitochondrial and Oxidation Reduction Genes in the Long-Lived Naked Mole-Rat When Compared to Mice 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(11):e26729.
The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is a long-lived, cancer resistant rodent and there is a great interest in identifying the adaptations responsible for these and other of its unique traits. We employed RNA sequencing to compare liver gene expression profiles between naked mole-rats and wild-derived mice. Our results indicate that genes associated with oxidoreduction and mitochondria were expressed at higher relative levels in naked mole-rats. The largest effect is nearly 300-fold higher expression of epithelial cell adhesion molecule (Epcam), a tumour-associated protein. Also of interest are the protease inhibitor, alpha2-macroglobulin (A2m), and the mitochondrial complex II subunit Sdhc, both ageing-related genes found strongly over-expressed in the naked mole-rat. These results hint at possible candidates for specifying species differences in ageing and cancer, and in particular suggest complex alterations in mitochondrial and oxidation reduction pathways in the naked mole-rat. Our differential gene expression analysis obviated the need for a reference naked mole-rat genome by employing a combination of Illumina/Solexa and 454 platforms for transcriptome sequencing and assembling transcriptome contigs of the non-sequenced species. Overall, our work provides new research foci and methods for studying the naked mole-rat's fascinating characteristics.
PMCID: PMC3207814  PMID: 22073188
17.  Cutaneous and periodontal inputs to the cerebellum of the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) 
The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is a small fossorial rodent with specialized dentition that is reflected by the large cortical area dedicated to representation of the prominent incisors. Due to naked mole-rats’ behavioral reliance on the incisors for digging and for manipulating objects, as well as their ability to move the lower incisors independently, we hypothesized that expanded somatosensory representations of the incisors would be present within the cerebellum in order to accommodate a greater degree of proprioceptive, cutaneous, and periodontal input. Multiunit electrophysiological recordings targeting the ansiform lobule were used to investigate tactile inputs from receptive fields on the entire body with a focus on the incisors. Similar to other rodents, a fractured somatotopy appeared to be present with discrete representations of the same receptive fields repeated within each folium of the cerebellum. These findings confirm the presence of somatosensory inputs to a large area of the naked mole-rat cerebellum with particularly extensive representations of the lower incisors and mystacial vibrissae. We speculate that these extensive inputs facilitate processing of tactile cues as part of a sensorimotor integration network that optimizes how sensory stimuli are acquired through active exploration and in turn adjusts motor outputs (such as independent movement of the lower incisors). These results highlight the diverse sensory specializations and corresponding brain organizational schemes that have evolved in different mammals to facilitate exploration of and interaction with their environment.
PMCID: PMC3831171  PMID: 24302898
naked mole-rat; somatosensory; tactile exploration; grasping; dentition; incisor; cerebellum; electrophysiology
18.  A Distinct Role of the Queen in Coordinated Workload and Soil Distribution in Eusocial Naked Mole-Rats 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e44584.
We investigated how group members achieve collective decision-making, by considering individual intrinsic behavioural rules and behavioural mechanisms for maintaining social integration. Using a simulated burrow environment, we investigated the behavioural rules of coordinated workload for soil distribution in a eusocial mammal, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber). We tested two predictions regarding a distinct role of the queen, a socially dominant individual in the caste system: the presence of a queen would increase the workload of other caste individuals, and the cues by a queen would affect the soil distribution. In experiment 1, we placed four individuals of various castes from the same colony into an experimental burrow. Workers exhibited the highest frequency of workload compared to other castes. The presence of a queen activated the workload by other individuals. Individuals showed a consistent workload in a particular direction so as to bias the soil distribution. These results suggest that individuals have a consensus on soil distribution and that the queen plays a distinct role. In experiment 2, we placed the odour of a queen in one of four cells and observed its effect on other individuals’ workload and soil distribution. Relative to other cells, individuals frequently dug in the queen cell so the amount of soil in the queen cell decreased. These results suggest that queen odour is an important cue in coordinated workload and soil distribution in this species.
PMCID: PMC3434143  PMID: 22957085
19.  Altered Composition of Liver Proteasome Assemblies Contributes to Enhanced Proteasome Activity in the Exceptionally Long-Lived Naked Mole-Rat 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e35890.
The longest-lived rodent, the naked mole-rat (Bathyergidae; Heterocephalus glaber), maintains robust health for at least 75% of its 32 year lifespan, suggesting that the decline in genomic integrity or protein homeostasis routinely observed during aging, is either attenuated or delayed in this extraordinarily long-lived species. The ubiquitin proteasome system (UPS) plays an integral role in protein homeostasis by degrading oxidatively-damaged and misfolded proteins. In this study, we examined proteasome activity in naked mole-rats and mice in whole liver lysates as well as three subcellular fractions to probe the mechanisms behind the apparently enhanced effectiveness of UPS. We found that when compared with mouse samples, naked mole-rats had significantly higher chymotrypsin-like (ChT-L) activity and a two-fold increase in trypsin-like (T-L) in both whole lysates as well as cytosolic fractions. Native gel electrophoresis of the whole tissue lysates showed that the 20S proteasome was more active in the longer-lived species and that 26S proteasome was both more active and more populous. Western blot analyses revealed that both 19S subunits and immunoproteasome catalytic subunits are present in greater amounts in the naked mole-rat suggesting that the observed higher specific activity may be due to the greater proportion of immunoproteasomes in livers of healthy young adults. It thus appears that proteasomes in this species are primed for the efficient removal of stress-damaged proteins. Further characterization of the naked mole-rat proteasome and its regulation could lead to important insights on how the cells in these animals handle increased stress and protein damage to maintain a longer health in their tissues and ultimately a longer life.
PMCID: PMC3342291  PMID: 22567116
20.  Extended Longevity of Reproductives Appears to be Common in Fukomys Mole-Rats (Rodentia, Bathyergidae) 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(4):e18757.
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) contain several social, cooperatively breeding species with low extrinsic mortality and unusually high longevity. All social bathyergids live in multigenerational families where reproduction is skewed towards a few breeding individuals. Most of their offspring remain as reproductively inactive “helpers” in their natal families, often for several years. This “reproductive subdivision” of mole-rat societies might be of interest for ageing research, as in at least one social bathyergid (Ansell's mole-rats Fukomys anselli), breeders have been shown to age significantly slower than non-breeders. These animals thus provide excellent conditions for studying the epigenetics of senescence by comparing divergent longevities within the same genotypes without the inescapable short-comings of inter-species comparisons. It has been claimed that many if not all social mole-rat species may have evolved similar ageing patterns, too. However, this remains unclear on account of the scarcity of reliable datasets on the subject. We therefore analyzed a 20-year breeding record of Giant mole-rats Fukomys mechowii, another social bathyergid species. We found that breeders indeed lived significantly longer than helpers (ca. 1.5–2.2fold depending on the sex), irrespective of social rank or other potentially confounding factors. Considering the phylogenetic positions of F. mechowii and F. anselli and unpublished data on a third Fukomys-species (F. damarensis) showing essentially the same pattern, it seems probable that the reversal of the classic trade-off between somatic maintenance and sexual reproduction is characteristic of the whole genus and hence of the vast majority of social mole-rats.
PMCID: PMC3076438  PMID: 21533255
Neuroscience  2008;155(3):809-817.
Naked mole-rats are highly social rodents that live in large colonies characterized by a rigid social and reproductive hierarchy. Only one female, the queen, breeds. Most colony members are non-reproductive subordinates that work cooperatively to rear the young and maintain an underground burrow system. Little is known about the neurobiological basis of the complex sociality exhibited by this species. The neuropeptide oxytocin (Oxt) modulates social bonding and other social behaviors in many vertebrates. Here we examined the distribution of Oxt immunoreactivity in the brains of male and female naked mole-rats. As in other species, the majority of Oxt-immunoreactive (Oxt-ir) cells were found in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei, with additional labeled cells scattered throughout the preoptic and anterior hypothalamic areas. Oxt-ir fibers were found traveling toward and through the median eminence, as well as in the tenia tecta, septum, and nucleus of diagonal band of Broca. A moderate network of fibers covered the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and preoptic area, and a particularly dense fiber innervation of the nucleus accumbens and substantia innominata was observed. In the brainstem, Oxt-ir fibers were found in the periaqueductal grey, locus coeruleus, parabrachial nucleus, nucleus of the solitary tract, and nuclueus ambiguus. The high levels of Oxt immunoreactivity in the nucleus accumbens and preoptic area are intriguing, given the link in other rodents between Oxt signaling in these regions and maternal behavior. Although only the queen gives birth or nurses pups in a naked mole-rat colony, most individuals actively participate in pup care.
PMCID: PMC2614305  PMID: 18582538
sex differences; social hierarchy; naked mole-rat; Heterocephalus glaber; sociality; vasopressin
22.  Blunted Neuronal Calcium Response to Hypoxia in Naked Mole-Rat Hippocampus 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(2):e31568.
Naked mole-rats are highly social and strictly subterranean rodents that live in large communal colonies in sealed and chronically oxygen-depleted burrows. Brain slices from naked mole-rats show extreme tolerance to hypoxia compared to slices from other mammals, as indicated by maintenance of synaptic transmission under more hypoxic conditions and three fold longer latency to anoxic depolarization. A key factor in determining whether or not the cellular response to hypoxia is reversible or leads to cell death may be the elevation of intracellular calcium concentration. In the present study, we used fluorescent imaging techniques to measure relative intracellular calcium changes in CA1 pyramidal cells of hippocampal slices during hypoxia. We found that calcium accumulation during hypoxia was significantly and substantially attenuated in slices from naked mole-rats compared to slices from laboratory mice. This was the case for both neonatal (postnatal day 6) and older (postnatal day 20) age groups. Furthermore, while both species demonstrated more calcium accumulation at older ages, the older naked mole-rats showed a smaller calcium accumulation response than even the younger mice. A blunted intracellular calcium response to hypoxia may contribute to the extreme hypoxia tolerance of naked mole-rat neurons. The results are discussed in terms of a general hypothesis that a very prolonged or arrested developmental process may allow adult naked mole-rat brain to retain the hypoxia tolerance normally only seen in neonatal mammals.
PMCID: PMC3283646  PMID: 22363676
23.  Hormonal and behavioural correlates of male dominance and reproductive status in captive colonies of the naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber. 
Naked mole-rat colonies are societies with a high reproductive skew, breeding being restricted to one dominant female (the 'queen') and 1-3 males. Other colony members of both sexes are reproductively suppressed. Experimental removal of breeding males allowed us to investigate the relationship between urinary testosterone and cortisol, dominance rank, and male reproductive status. Dominance rank was strongly correlated with body weight, age, and urinary testosterone titres in males. No relationship between urinary cortisol levels and male reproductive status or dominance was found. Breeding males were among the highest-ranking, heaviest and oldest males in their respective colonies, and were succeeded by other high-ranking, large, old colony males. In contrast to females, no evidence of competition over breeding status was observed among males. Male-male agonism was low both before and after removal of breeders and mate guarding was not observed. The lower reproductive skew for males compared with female skew or queen control over male reproduction may explain why males compete less strongly than females over breeding status after removal of same-sexed breeders.
PMCID: PMC1689228  PMID: 9721687
24.  Advanced Glycation End-Products as Markers of Aging and Longevity in the Long-Lived Ansell’s Mole-Rat (Fukomys anselli) 
Mole-rat of the genus Fukomys are mammals whose life span is strongly influenced by reproductive status with breeders far outliving nonbreeders. This raises the important question of whether increased longevity of the breeders is reflected in atypical expression of biochemical markers of aging. Here, we measured markers of glycation and advanced glycation end-products formed in insoluble skin collagen of Ansell’s mole-rat Fukomys anselli as a function of age and breeding status. Glucosepane, pentosidine, and total advanced glycation end-product content significantly increased with age after correction for breeder status and sex. Unexpectedly, total advanced glycation end-products, glucosepane, and carboxymethyl-lysine (CML) were significantly higher in breeders versus nonbreeders suggesting that breeders have evolved powerful defenses against combined oxidant and carbonyl stress compared with nonbreeders. Most interestingly, when compared with other mammals, pentosidine formation rate was lower in mole-rat compared with other short-lived rodents confirming previous observations of an inverse relationship between longevity and pentosidine formation rates in skin collagen.
PMCID: PMC3348492  PMID: 22156473
Longevity; Collagen; Glycemia; Markers; Oxidative stress
25.  Dominance and queen succession in captive colonies of the eusocial naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber. 
Naked mole-rat colonies exhibit a high reproductive skew, breeding being typically restricted to one female (the 'queen') and one to three males. Other colony members are reproductively suppressed, although this suppression can be reversed following the removal or death of the queen. We examined dominance and queen succession within captive colonies to investigate the relationship between urinary testosterone and cortisol, dominance rank and reproductive status; and to determine if behavioural and/or physiological parameters can be used as predictors of queen succession. Social structure was characterized by a linear dominance hierarchy before and after queen removal. Prior to queen removal, dominance rank was negatively correlated with body weight and urinary testosterone and cortisol titres in males and females. Queen removal results in social instability and aggression between high ranking individuals. Dominance rank appears to be a good predictor of reproductive status: queens are the highest ranking colony females and are succeeded by the next highest ranking females. The intense dominance-related aggression that accompanies reproductive succession in naked mole-rats provides empirical support for optimal skew theory.
PMCID: PMC1688532  PMID: 9263466

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