- Mole-rats have a natural instinct to tunnel and are able to chew through most materials over time. They may be contained in glass or plastic-walled cylinders (like clear PVC pipes) or cubes (like glass tanks) as long as they can’t get their teeth around any edges and chew through. When housing this species in a hydrostone-lined chamber, as in many naturalistic exhibits, keepers should expect to perform periodic repairs to the hydrostone.
- Can be very sensitive to sounds and vibrations. May be kept in a quiet area or gradually acclimated to more activity through exposure to voices, music, etc.
- Olfaction is very important in this species and colony members identify each other through a shared odor. Chambers should be spot-cleaned daily with water but soap should only be used occasionally and care should be taken to maintain the colony’s scent through partial substrate changes, cleaning one surface at a time, etc. Chemicals should never be used in hydrostone chambers.
- At the Houston Zoo, we have had good results with temperatures in the low 70’s. If humidity in the chambers is too high, hair loss will result.
- Damaraland mole-rats are herbivores, eating tubers and roots in the wild. The Houston Zoo provides them with a variety of root vegetables (turnip, sweet potato, carrot), peas, green beans, squash, fruits, and leafy greens. Rodent block and rice cereal are good maintenance foods.
- Damaraland mole-rats do not drink water and should never be given free-standing water. They get all the water they require through their produce diet.
- An appropriate balance of calcium and phosphorus is important for long-term health in this species. They should eat foods high in complex carbohydrates rather than rapidly metabolized sugars.
- Coprophagy is normal for this species.
- The teeth of Damaraland mole rats should be monitored for malocclusion. Simple veterinary procedures can correct this problem.
- Teeth may fall out in older animals. Select food for these animals may be “cooked” in order to soften hard root vegetables.
- To maintain membership in the colony, sick or injured individuals should never be isolated for more than a few hours. If it is necessary to remove a mole-rat from the colony for extended veterinary treatment, that individual should be housed with at least two worker mole-rats at a time. These workers should be switched out about twice a day and rotated back through the colony to maintain social integration. Substrate may also be exchanged between the colony and the individual under treatment to maintain olfactory communication and facilitate eventual reintegration into the colony.
Notes on Enrichment & Training
- Enrichment for mole rats can relate to their natural burrowing and foraging behavior. Blocking tunnels with food or enrichment will promote natural excavation behaviors.
- Damaraland mole-rats are motivated to create a “nest” of materials such as hay, browse, cardboard, or paper. Workers can be occupied for long periods shredding nesting material and moving it to their nest chamber.
- This species has a strong instinct for chewing and should be given items such as sticks and clumps of hydrostone to chew. This will also reduce wear and tear on colony chambers.
Colony or Breeding Management
Tips on Presentation
- Take at least three individuals out for presentation at a time to avoid stress. Bringing out an assortment of workers and soldiers will also help to illustrate the eusocial nature of the species.
- We typically present this species indoors and are careful not to expose them to bright sunlight, loud noises, or temperatures below 70 degrees.
- We take our Damaraland mole-rats out for presentations in a critter carrier or rubbermaid tub on a rolling cart for most groups. Small groups can be seated around the carrier on the floor for a closer look.
- Mole-rats have devoted fans. We frequently take interested guests behind the scenes for impromptu “Memorable Moment” tours so that they can see the animals up close.
- Even at Houston Zoo, we don’t allow guests to touch these animals due to their dangerous bite.
Tips on Handling
- Damaraland mole-rats can give a very serious bite and should be handled with caution. The usual method is to handle them only when necessary, picking them up in container (A short length of clear 3″ wide PVC tube that is capped at one end and blocked at the other once the mole-rat has entered works well.) or tightly scruffing them with a gloved hand by the loose skin on the back of the neck or really anywhere along the spine. When using this method, be aware that a rarely-handled mole-rat will tend to react aggressively. They are fairly flexible and can reach your hand with their teeth if they have enough slack in their skin.
- At the Houston Zoo, we started with a typically aggressive colony that we had to move one at a time each day in PVC “elevators” or by scruffing due to our exhibit design. We found that infants could be picked up gently and supported under their bodies rather than being scruffed and that we could continue handling them that way indefinitely as long as we handled them almost every day. Adults gradually became acclimated to regular handling as well and, as aggression subsided, we began picking them up gently around the hips with their heads away from our hands and their bodies over a critter carrier or similar container so that they could be safely let go if they made a quick move. This process was aided by our practice of tracking each mole-rat individually based on their markings and knowing their personalities. Experienced handlers can now handle the whole colony in this manner. We prefer this method because it allows us to better assess and treat any health issues and otherwise aids husbandry. We feel it is safer because the animals are so much less likely to react aggressively when we the need to handle them inevitably arises. This method is the only reason we feel safe taking them out for programs.
- Mole-rats can back up faster than they can move forward so care should be taken to avoid dropping one if it makes a sudden move. We typically hold ours within a foot or two over a container like a critter keeper during presentations as a precaution.
- Endemic to hot, arid regions of Africa, this species is adapted to a specific climate and habitat.
- Desert and Dryland species have specific adaptations for the temperature and water availability in their natural habitat and may not be able to adjust to the drying effects of climate change. Hotter conditions promote wildfires. More extreme drought conditions kill plants that hold the soil in place and occasional extreme rain events wash that soil away preventing them from growing back in a process called desertification. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Please ask guests to walk, bike, or take public transportation when possible and to reduce their use of fossil fuels when they do drive by buying a fuel economic car, carpooling, combining errands, and keeping vehicles properly tuned up and their tires properly inflated. At home and work, purchase Energy Star appliances, turn off lights when they are not in use, and use heaters and air conditioners sparingly. The principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle will also help by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions involved with the manufacture and disposal of unnecessary goods.
Comments from the Rating System
- Houston Zoo: We handle ours every day from the time they’re infants in the course of our husbandry routine, so they are very docile when picked up. Ours are great for presentations for guests, but only because they don’t try to bite.
- National Zoo: Very aggressive; requires heavy-duty gloves for handling
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
They range from the Kalahari desert to Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
- This species is eusocial like bees and ants. The “queen” is the only female breeder. The rest of the colony is divided into larger soldiers who defend the colony from intruders and smaller workers who find food and care for young.
- This species lives in chambers under the ground. Some chambers are specifically used for food storage, nests, or latrines.
Threats and Conservation Status
Did you know…
- There are at least 27 species of mole-rat. They are neither moles nor rats but are more closely related to guinea pigs and chinchillas.
Contributors and Citations
Top Photo: By Sharry Goldman [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
- Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters