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Interview with Elphaba, Queen of the Naked Mole Rats

by Queen Elphaba | June 9, 2020

The naked mole rat reigns supreme at PacSci, fascinating our guests for decades and stumping researchers for even longer. We are proud to introduce you to Elphaba, Queen of the Naked Mole Rats! She is a mysterious and influential ruler, handling the many ups and downs of her colony in PacSci’s living exhibits with grace and aplomb. We love her, and we know that you will love her too.

Read this tell-all interview where Elphaba spills her secrets, provides advice to those of us living in close quarters at home, and schools us on the ins and outs of being Queen.

How does it feel to rule this squirming, undulating mass of rodents?
I love being the queen of my colony! Of course, as a leader and royal I feel a duty to my squirming subjects. Scientists believe that naked mole rats became eusocial because of the challenges we face in the wild while living underground in the deserts of Africa. It’s imperative to have a huge family to help with the workload and gather food. We’re all a team (but I’m the Queen) and everyone has a job. I appreciate my colony and the work we all do every day to keep things moving along!

How were you chosen to be queen?
We naked mole rats do glorious battle for the position! When the opportunity presented itself a while back I decided to fight for the title like a gladiator of legend, and won. (It helped, I suppose, that the previous queen was incapacitated in her old age.) I have been queen for many, many years so I don’t have to remind other, more impudent females as often as I used to that I am the leader. I will most likely remain the queen until I pass away, at which point the females will start the fight again to pronounce a new queen. I hope they battle with a ferocity befitting our naked mole rat traditions.

How do you spend your day?
I have many duties as queen. One of the most important ones is to inspect the chambers that my workers are creating each day. I also spend a lot of time reminding others to get along and keeping the peace. My regal bearing is helpful during these confrontations. Sometimes my subjects bring food to me, but I’ll occasionally follow the workers who have found food and eat with them at the food source. I am nothing if not magnanimous.

Who decides who does what in the community? Do you have generals or lieutenants or some kind of hierarchy?
We do have soldiers and workers, and there is a hierarchy in the colony. The workers are very important and make up most of the group. They make new tunnels and chambers, find food, and are the ones who alert the soldiers of danger! When the soldiers get alerted to a danger, they race to face it and protect the colony. My soldiers do a great job of protecting our colony every week when our keepers decide to take away our bedding and replace it. They race to show those keepers their teeth and tell them not to mess with the colony! As the queen I am at the top of the hierarchy, but there is quick way to tell who is above the others in the group too. When you see two naked mole rats passing through the same tube, whoever goes over the other is higher on the ladder!

Who decides who you mate with to keep the colony healthy?
It’s common for queens to pick out a couple males and have them be her partners for years. Naked mole rat colonies are pretty unique in that we are all very closely related to each other. While the idea of having a group that’s so closely related might seem a little odd, it’s very normal for us and is just how we operate!

Do all your subjects keep themselves clean? Being that close and all, personal hygiene would seem to be important in the colony.
While hygiene is important, we have some behaviors that might not seem very clean to you humans that are completely normal for us! First off, smell is key to a naked mole rat since we don’t have very good eyesight. (We aren’t blind, mind you, just low vision.) We need to know who’s in our colony so that we can tell if there are intruders. In order to all smell the same we proudly roll around in our latrine, so that all smell like poop! Our keepers do a great job of cleaning our cage multiple times a week so that we stay healthy. In the wild we would start a new latrine when the old one gets too gross. We are also—you must’ve noticed, don’t be shy—have nearly hairless skin. We spend far less time self-grooming than other, perhaps vainer, creatures do because we lack fur. You could say that we are naturally squeaky-clean!

You’re a radiant leader. How do you keep yourself looking so good? What’s your secret?
Well thank you, truly flattered by the deserving praise, but this lady doesn’t reveal her secrets that easily! What I can say is that naked mole rats are exceptional creatures! We have incredible genetic makeup that keeps us looking great and living a long time (longer than any other rodent mind you!). And while scientists are studying what about our genes gives us the ability to live so long, they haven’t figured out our secrets quite yet! I am a queen of mystery and science. But I will let you in on a few secrets, since you’ve been such a devoted subject. Hyaluronan in naked mole rats is more elastic than in other mammals. This means that it is difficult for cancer cells to spread, our blood vessels are stretchier, and our skin is stretchier. I know that not everyone appreciates and adores our physical beauty, but our stretchy skin might just be the thing that makes us wrinkled but keeps us young.

What’s your favorite food?
I simply adore fruits! Apples and bananas disappear in minutes when my admiring keepers offer them. Truly the food of queens. But I eat a variety of tubers, vegetables, fruits, and rodent blocks.

Since you rule your world in constant contact with your subjects, do you have advice for humans now locked together in their homes?
Naked mole rats live the way they do now because it is safe and we are able have a massive amount of space while keeping out of sight of predators. We enjoy being around each other and piling together to relax and snuggle. I am the queen of snuggles, a very important role. We like to keep busy chewing out tunnels or finding new foods. I think the main thing that we would advise it to remember to work together and keep each other safe and happy like we do! Also there should be a queen who is in charge. Obviously.

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