Prof digs deep to uncover secrets of mole rats

2015-07-10 19:31

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Johannesburg  - After three decades of studying mole rats, award-winning Professor of Mammology Nigel Bennett says they still have mysteries to unlock.

“Because they are underground, there are still many secrets to unravel,” says Bennett, who on Thursday was presented with a National Science and Technology Forum award for his contribution to the field of mammology – the study of mammals.

Bennett explained that the mole rat is neither a mole nor a rat, but rather that “they look like a rat, but act like a mole”.

Some mole rats are solitary, while others live socially, with a queen and “one or two male consorts”.  The others in the colony either serve as frequent or infrequent workers.

One major unanswered question is how the queen mole rat suppresses the ability of other females to reproduce.

“How she is doing it, we don’t know… After 25 years it’s still a mystery. It’s actually quite annoying.”

Surprisingly long life span

If scientists could find the answer, it could have medical benefits, including the creation of contraceptives.

He is also researching their surprisingly long life span. Indigenous species live for up to 14 or 15 years. It had recently been found that those that breed live longer than those that do not.

“Maybe it’s good to start having children because you live longer,” Bennett joked.

British and American researchers had found that the creatures did not seem to develop cancer and they were seeing if they could find a gene or chemical that had anti-cancer properties.

Bennett enthused that their subterrean lifestyle – they dig deep to get the bulbs and tubers that they eat - could be used in developing underground mining strategies. 

The fact that mole rats have regular circadian rhythms – despite the fact they are not exposed to light which normally governs these cycles of behavioural, psychological and physical changes in living organisms – was also of interest.

'The hairy ones look like you could cuddle them'

Bennett, who is originally from Britain, was inspired to come and live in South Africa to study these “very cute” creatures.

“The hairy ones look like you could cuddle them”, were it not for their two long incisors.

His favourite species is the Damaraland mole rat that lives mainly in the Kalahari: “They are very vocal and when they huddle and you put your hand out, they sometimes think you are one of them and turn around and groom your hand.”

Since his eyesight had gotten a little poorer and he had to wear glasses, he suspects he is beginning to look like his beloved research subjects, who have weak vision.

“They say you get to look like your animals.”

The Damaraland mole rat is one of the social species. The solitary ones are found in areas where food is more available, such as in parts of the Western Cape. Mole rat colonies are found in places like the Kalahari where food distribution is patchy and spread out.

“They are social because they have to dig long distances.”

'Serve a valuable role in the environment'

Bennett has loved animals since he was a child and belonged to an animal interest club. Much to the annoyance of the other children, he triumphed at the club’s regular quizzes and “won the cup at the end”. 

His dream had been to come to Africa and be a game warden. In fact, his father had even written, on his behalf, to naturalist David Attenborough asking for advice on how Bennett could fulfil his dream. He wrote back and said “Nigel should study to be a zoologist”, reminisced Bennett.

Part of Bennett’s award was for his mentorship of students, many of them from other parts of Africa such as Zambia, Tanzania, and Namibia. 

Bennett hopes his supervision had ensured these scientists could become “leaders in the field, taking the work I’ve done one step further”.

He has a cat named Zoe and enjoys reading National Geographic and books about explorers in Africa.

The public should not think of mole rats as pests, as they contribute to soil aeration and the distribution of nutrients.

“I want people to know that they serve a valuable role in the environment.” 

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  animals

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