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What Do Naked Mole-Rats Eat? (The Full List)

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Naked mole-rats primarily eat the underground parts of plants. This includes tubers, roots, bulbs, corms, stolons, and rhizomes. It is also common for them to consume feces of their own or members of their colony. On rare occasions, they will consume bones.

Naked mole-rats are one of the fascinating creatures that not many people know about! These unique creatures live exclusively underground and may go their whole life without seeing the light of day.

What do naked mole-rats eat underground? Their diet is fascinating, as are their methods of finding and consuming food. 

In this article, we’re going to delve deep into the full diet of a naked mole-rat and their unique feeding behaviors and adaptations.

What Do Naked Mole-Rats Eat?

Since the habitat of the naked mole-rat consists entirely of underground tunnels, the food available to them is limited. Naked mole-rats will almost feed entirely on plant matter. They also eat feces and bones.

Plants

Naked mole-rats rely on plants for their main source of nutrients and moisture. They only eat the underground portions of plants as they don’t emerge to the surface to forage.

The East African habitat of naked mole-rats is an arid region with low average rainfall. To adapt, plants in this ecosystem have diverse storage organs. These store nutrients and moisture to aid survival over the drier seasons. 

Plant storage organs will vary based on the plant’s survival strategy. Each type will offer naked mole-rats different nutrients to make up a complete diet. 

Plant storage organs include:

  • Tubers
  • Roots
  • Bulbs
  • Corms
  • Stoloms
  • Rhizomes
Plant organFormFunction
TuberEnlarged structures from stolons or rhizomesStorage, reproduction
RootLong tendrilsAnchoring the plant, collecting nutrients and moisture
BulbShort stem with fleshy leavesStorage during dormancy
StolomsRoot connecting multiple plantsGrows rhizomes
RhizomesUnderground stemGrowth, reproductive
Naked Mole-Rat eating
Image Source

Feces

Naked mole-rats also eat the feces of their own species. They eat feces from:

  • Themselves
  • Other naked mole-rats workers
  • The Queen
  • Pups

Plant matter consumed by naked mole-rats is difficult to digest. These small animals possess symbiotic bacteria in their intestines to assist in the breakdown of cellulose, but often, there are still nutrients left in their feces. To take advantage of all the nutrients, they consume the feces of other colony members’ feces or their own.

Naked mole-rats eat the feces of the Queen to receive her reproductive hormones[1]. In a naked mole-rat colony, the Queen is the only sexually mature female. She produces offspring, but she does not care for them herself.

When other colony members ingest the Queen’s hormones, the estrogen boost will stimulate them to care for the pups. Naked mole-rats who care for the pups consume the pups’ feces as they groom them.

Other Naked-Mole Rats

In rare events, naked mole-rats can be cannibalistic. Naked mole-rats are known to eat the pups of the colony. They do so to remove sick or weak pups so that strong pups can get more nutrients.

What Do Naked Mole-Rats Drink?

Naked mole-rats do not drink water. They gain all their water requirements from plant material. They are efficient at conserving body moisture, so they do not have high water requirements.

Naked mole-rats never come across any bodies of water in their underground habitat, so they are not presented with the opportunity to drink.

To obtain vital water requirements, naked mole-rats absorb moisture from plants in their diet. 

Since the portion of plants they eat is storage organs, they often have high moisture levels. The naked mole-rat can meet all of its water needs this way.

Naked mole-rats have highly adapted kidneys[2]. This means they are efficient in conserving water and can go a long time without any.

Naked Mole-Rat

How Do Naked Mole-Rats Find Food?

Naked mole-rats find food by using their teeth to tunnel underground. Their developed sense of smell and touch help them locate roots and tubers to eat. Foragers will bring the food back to the colony for the others to consume.

Naked mole-rats are one of two mammal species that have a eusocial social structure. This means that they form cooperative groups with a division of labor and roles (just like ants and bees).

This structure means that only a few naked mole-rats workers of the colony forage and collect food to feed the entire colony. 

Foragers use their large front teeth and strong jaws to tunnel through the ground in search of plants. A quarter of all their muscles are found in their jaws for this reason[3]. They have unique lips that can close behind their teeth[4] to prevent dirt from filling their mouth while digging.

Their excellent sense of smell and touch helps them identify food sources. When they find food they will do one of three things:

  1. Eat it on the spot
  2. Take a sample to the colony
  3. Store it away for later

If the discovered food is too large to be moved, the naked mole-rats will eat the root or tuber as it lies. They will often remove a sample and take it to the colony, and other naked mole-rats will follow their scent trail back to the food source[5].

Worker mole-rats will also take food back to the colony and deliver it to the Queen and weaning pups.

Excess food is collected and stored in a room within the tunnel system. This room is exclusively used for food storage. The entire colony can access it when required.

What Do Baby Naked Mole-Rats Eat?

Baby naked mole-rats are nourished by milk from their mother for approximately a month. They will then sample solid food in the form of roots and tubers. They also feed on the feces of their mother and other colony members.

Despite their strange eusocial behaviors, naked mole-rats are still mammals. Just like all mammals, the mother—the colony’s Queen— produce milk for her offspring. They will consume only milk for around a month.

When they begin to wean, they nibble on the same plant matter as the adults. This is brought to them by adult naked mole-rats, as the pups struggle to locate food independently.

Baby naked mole-rats also feed on the feces of their mother. Her feces are high in beneficial pheromones in the days after giving birth, which aids in brain development[6].

Additionally, baby naked mole-rats eat the feces of the other colony members to gain advantageous gut bacteria for digestion of the high fiber in their diet[7].

Baby Naked Mole-Rats
Image Source

How Much Do Naked Mole-Rats Eat?

Food availability dictates how much naked mole-rats eat. They can alter their metabolism to survive when food is scarce. Their eating will also depend on environmental parameters such as oxygen levels and temperature.

There is no set amount of food that a naked mole-rat eats. Naked mole-rats have some extraordinary adaptations that they can use to adjust to food availability. 

Due to their underground habitat, naked mole-rats often encounter areas of very low oxygen. In response, they lower their body temperature and metabolism to survive[8]. During this period of lower metabolism, they eat much less as they don’t have the energy for digestion.

This adaptation is also helpful for periods of low food availability. By lowering their metabolism, they require less food to function. Their food consumption remains low after a period of no food in an attempt to conserve food resources[9].

Naked mole-rats are also one of few mammals that cannot internally thermoregulate. This is an energy-conserving adaptation as their habitat usually remains at a constant temperature.

In times of abnormal cold, naked mole-rats metabolism will slow, and they will consume only minimal amounts of food.

Naked Mole-Rat 2

How Do Naked Mole-Rats Eat?

Naked mole-rats eat by using their large front teeth and powerful jaws. They can chew through the tough surfaces of roots and tubers. They conserve parts of the plant for regeneration as a long-term food source.

Naked mole-rats have a bite force that is 65% more powerful than expected for their size[10]. This strong bite, combined with two sets of large front teeth, allows them to eat hard plant matter. 

They can find and eat tubers up to 1,000 times their body weight. They chew through to the root’s flesh, leaving the skin intact so that the food source stays alive for longer.  They leave the core of the root undamaged so that the organ can regenerate, allowing a single food source to feed a colony for months or even years.

Are Naked Mole-Rats Herbivores?

Yes, naked mole-rats are herbivores. They mainly eat plant matter in roots, tubers, and bulbs. They can be opportunistic omnivorous, occasionally eating bones.

The naked mole-rat functions on a diet that is exclusively plant-based. They gain all the nutrients they need from underground parts of plants and their own feces.

They can become opportunistic when food sources are hard to come by. They have been seen eating bones to supplement their diet.

Conclusion

Naked mole-rats are herbivores that sustain themselves on the underground parts of plants. They can be opportunistic, sometimes eating bones or each other. They also gain extra nutrients from eating their feces to reabsorb plant matter.

About Sophie Herlihy (Zoologist)

Sophie Herlihy, a trained zoologist, is a lover of true misfit animals. With a specialty in insects, birds, and rodents, she helps the Misfit Animals craft factual and valuable informational pieces on various animals.

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