Infant Slavery: New Study Reveals Disturbing Habit of Naked Mole Rats

  • They’re ugly, they behave like insects, and they apparently also enslave babies. There’s nothing right with these rats.

The phrase “animal cruelty” refers to abusive human behavior directed at animals. But do we have a word for when animals themselves commit atrocities against each other?

Supposedly, the word we’re looking for is “nature”. And believe us, nature can be the most brutal thing of all. For a good example, check out our recent article on hornets that slaughter entire beehives just to eat the babies within.

It’s not just insects that are capable of wanton cruelty, though. As we all are all too keenly aware of, mammals – including us humans – like to visit misery on other living things just as much.

A recent study published in the Journal of Zoology sheds new light on some downright depraved traditions that prevail in the society of naked mole rats. What they get up to makes the hornets’ bee genocide look like a mercy killing.

Slavery might be one of the most distasteful and reviled practices in modern society, but the mole rats don’t give a hoot or a holler about such moral standards.

In fact, the new study found that they like to kidnap newborn pups from other mole rat colonies. Once transferred to their new home colony, the babies are brought up to live a lifetime of slavery.

Charming creatures.

Angry female naked mole rat.
Credit: Buffenstein/Barshop Institute/UTHSCSA

The Naked Mole What?

That said, there’s really nothing charming about a naked mole rat. To begin with, the things look like shriveled sacks of skin.

True to their name, these rats are naked. Apart from some sensory hairs, they don’t have any fur at all, which leaves their aforementioned scrotum-like skin in full view.

They have gigantic buckteeth that aren’t hidden in their mouths like with most of their fellow rodents. Instead, they protrude right through their upper and lower lips, entirely covering their mouths.

These little freaks are also nearly blind due to their extremely small eyes. As a cherry on top of this weird cake, their lungs are underdeveloped.

All off these weird mutations to the basic rat form start making sense once you consider the “mole” part of their name. Naked mole rats live underground in miles-long tunnel complexes.

In addition to their subterranean adaptations, there are plenty of other curious things in the mole rat physiology. They’re practically immune to cancer, they don’t age, barely feel any pain, and can survive 20 minutes without oxygen.

The Horror Begins

But this list of weirdness isn’t enough for these little freaks of nature. They’ve seemingly decided to defy just about every common mammalian trait.

They’ve actually taken a page from the playbook of the hornets we mentioned. Like ants, wasps, bees, and many other insects, naked mole rats live in a eusocial society.

They have a single breeding queen rat, who presides over the entire colony. The queen is accompanied by its male consorts whose only purpose is to keep inseminating the queen.

Everybody else in the colony is a temporarily sterile female worker. And the queen absolutely loathes them.

You see, the last thing the queen wants is another female to start exhibiting queen-like behavior and becoming a threat. As such, the queen is often brutally hostile toward female workers.

The brutality doesn’t end when the queen dies, though. That’s when the female workers start fighting amongst themselves until one emerges victorious and morphs into the new queen.

The queen produces large amounts of pups, up to 30 at a time. There can be hundreds of worker rats in a single mole rat colony.

For the longest time, researchers thought that inbreeding was a significant driver in the staggering number of the rats. It may well be so, but this new study finds that it’s not the only thing keeping the colony’s population on the grow.

Doomed to Live as Slaves

The research team, led by Stan Braude from the Biology Department of the University of Washington, expanded on observations that were made in the early 1990s in Kenya. Observing 26 rat colonies, the scientists noticed that they expanded their territory by invading neighboring colonies.

The mole rats of the neighboring colonies were never seen again. Until now.

The researchers noticed that two rat pups in one of the invading colonies appeared to originate from another colony that they had taken over. Analysis of the baby rats’ tissue proved them right.

“[The kidnapped pups] became non-reproductive workers, and hence their life effort would be categorized as slavery, in the same sense as slave-making ants,” the study reads.

The mole rats had taken babies from the invaded colony and enslaved them. The scientists theorize that their slave driving habits help naked mole rats reinforce their populations, giving larger colonies a competitive edge over smaller ones.

Naked mole rats aren’t the only mammals that kidnap infants from other populations. Certain apes and monkeys also raid other groups and take their babies.

However, there is a crucial difference. The monkeys are usually looking to secure future mates when they raid other monkeys. The rats, on the other hand, are not looking for anything but cheap, forced labor.

Nature, man. It’s brutal.