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.
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.