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Physical Attributes

Mole-rats are well-adapted to life underground. Their eyes are much reduced, as is the visual center in the brain, suggesting that sight does not play much of a role in their dark, subterranean environment. In fact, it is not clear whether some mole-rat species can perceive light at all; most keep their eyes closed while going about their underground business, opening them only when alarmed. Their ears are also tiny, but their hearing is acute. Mole-rats communicate using a wide array of chirps, trills, and other vocalizations, as well as by drumming with their hind feet on the floor of the burrow. Their senses of smell and touch are also well developed, and are used to help identify and communicate with one another.

First-time viewers may find the mole-rat's appearance a bit odd: they have short limbs, a cylindrically shaped body, and very loose skin with numerous folds. Long hairs, called vibrissae, stand out from the skin of the head and body, providing sensory information. The incisor teeth protrude prominently from the mouth, and the lips close behind the teeth to keep out dust and soil. Some mole-rat species actually dig their tunnels using their incisor teeth; other species dig using strong front legs armed with sturdy claws. Most mole-rats have a short tail, but naked mole-rats have a tail up to half of their body length, used to help guide the animal as it runs backwards along tunnels. Perhaps because of their tail, naked mole-rats can navigate as quickly and easily in the reverse direction as forward; if two animals meet in a tunnel, one of them may back up some distance before coming to a place it can turn around and face forward again.

Large, prominent teeth are also important in food-gathering, as the primary food source of mole-rats is underground roots, tubers, and corms, which can be quite tough. Mole-rats occasionally eat above-ground shoots that are pulled underground from below; the animals almost never venture into the open air above. Tunnels used for food-collecting are dug up to the level where food is found; the main burrow system may lie several feet deeper in the ground. Collected food items are stored in a special food chamber, located off the main burrow.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockMole-Rats - Physical Attributes, Living Environment, Social Life