PacSci Perspectives


Naked Mole Rats Go Nationwide

by | Jan 12, 2017

“I’m bad, I’m nationwide.” –ZZ Top

One of the top draws to our animal exhibits is always the Naked Mole Rat enclosure. The hard working and strange looking creatures really fascinate people. Thanks to our Naked Mole Rat Cam they have local and international fans, and even receive occasional pieces of fan mail! The web cam captures these eusocial creatures’ daily life of working together to accomplish some pretty funny tasks, such as moving a carrot from room to room.

One of their fans from afar was Paul Hoffman, the CEO of Liberty Science Center (LSC) in Jersey City, New Jersey. Paul had visited them in person, seen their cyber exploits, and ultimately decided he wanted to share these creatures with his guests on the other side of the country. LSC’s Animal Husbandry team contacted Living Exhibits Manager, Sarah Moore, and talks began to make a transfer happen.

When we first received our naked mole rats from the Philadelphia Zoological Society in 1993, the colony consisted of just 7 individuals. In the 23 years since, our population had grown to 60 adult mole rats. That size seems to be the largest our colony will get. By sending off part of the colony, we hope to nudge the remaining animals to produce a new litter of pups.

We wanted a seamless journey for the colony and did everything we could to iron out details in advance. Animal Care Supervisor Lauren Bloomenthal had recently created the Naked Mole Rat Network, where mole rat caretakers could have a space to share information and ask questions about the unique husbandry challenges of these animals. This network proved extremely helpful to both institutions in planning the transition.

We decided to send 11 animals to LSC, with a fairly evenly split ratio between males and females. Identifying the sex of naked mole rats can be difficult, as they have very little visible differentiation in their external genitalia. Until now we had not needed to sex most of our colony members but thanks to the Naked Mole Rat Network, we got the advice and photos that helped us do so with confidence. And thanks to our more detailed record keeping and microchips, we will continue to have those records. Liberty Science Center would be getting 5 females and 6 males, and we would hold on to 31 males and 18 females.

Shipping requirements include a certificate of good health. Our vet came by, gave each of the chosen 11 a thorough check-up and signed their certificate. This was the last of the paperwork needed to finalize the trip. They would travel in the cargo hold of a United Airlines flight while Lauren accompanied them in coach.

On the evening of October 11, 2016, Lauren came into Pacific Science Center to collect the mole rats. She gathered all 60 animals and scanned their microchips one by one, separating out the world travelers. We wanted to be sure to get the correct ones.

The adventuring group included a few notable members of our colony. Longtime readers of the Life Sciences Blog may remember the infamous Hairless Houdini. Houdini is an older male mole rat known as a “disperser morph.” His role within the colony is actually to leave it and find another one in order to spread his genes. He was often the individual responsible for some of the more dramatic escape attempts. We chose to send him to allow him to “fulfill his dream” of moving to a new colony. His exploits were also a favorite of the LSC CEO who viewed him as a mole rat celebrity. The other notable traveler is a female who had her first litter of pups on August 6, 2016. While unfortunately none of those pups survived, the fact that she brought them to term is promising, and she will likely become the queen of the LSC colony. We nicknamed this newer queen Daenerys, and before the mole rats’ departure, one of the Animal Care volunteers prepared dragon shaped foods for her as a going away present to pay homage to her Game of Thrones namesake. Our other queen, Galinda, continues to also have pregnancies, so we were not giving away our only reproductive female.

The 11 departing animals were gathered up and placed in their traveling container: an outer box designed for sending rats and mice on airplanes and inner chambers which were exhibit acrylic chambers that turned out to fit perfectly in that outer box! Lauren lined the chambers with a little bit of bedding from the exhibit so it would smell like home, prepared a little bit of food for the journey, and moistened the bedding slightly to make sure they had the humidity they needed. The airline transport staff are serious about animal wellbeing during flight. Normally they check to make sure animals are transported with drinking water. We communicated in advance that mole rats get all their water from their food. After their outer container was fitted with slow release heat packs, they were ready to head to the airport!

After all that preparation, we dropped them off at PetSafe, filled out the final bit of paperwork, and headed to the airport for Lauren to catch the same plane as the mole rats.

After a red eye flight, which probably did not include much sleep for either Lauren or the mole rats, everyone arrived safely in Newark International Airport. Melissa Chin, LSC’s Manager of Animal Husbandry, met up with Lauren and they went together to retrieve the precious cargo. They checked on the naked mole rats, who were all active, alert, and did not look too traumatized from their travel. The PetSafe staff were also very curious about the contents of this distinctive shipment!

After a short car ride, the mole rats finally arrived at LSC: their new home! Melissa and Lauren took them to their behind-the-scenes quarantine area which was all prepped for their arrival. Their official exhibit was still under construction at the time, so this was be their habitat for the first couple of months. One by one, Lauren and the Animal Husbandry team at LSC scanned the mole rats’ microchip numbers, weighed them, and introduced them to their new digs.

At this point, the main part of the work was all done. The mole rats were home, healthy, and fed. Everyone continued to monitor their behavior throughout the day. Some animals started eating as soon as the food was added; others were more focused on learning the layout of their new habitat. After a few hours, they even settled down enough to start to rest and form their iconic pile. Lauren stayed at LSC for the rest of the day to help monitor them and learn about this other science museum. She came back once more the next day, consulting with the LSC staff about Pacific Science Center’s husbandry protocols and helping them come up with their own.

Our role in the lives of those 11 mole rats has come to a close, but they have helped us create a new connection with Liberty Science Center and we are always just a call away if they run into questions. In their new home they will delight and intrigue a whole new population of interested guests. We will miss them (maybe even more than the rest of our naked mole rat population, which did not seem to notice their absence), but we know they are in a wonderful environment for them to thrive and grow.

The naked mole rat exhibit is now open to the public at the Liberty Science Center and the mole rats have begun to educate their newest fans.