Quirks & Quarks

Naked mole rats learn their 'language' from their queens and speak in dialect

Characteristic 'accents' in the vocalizations by these nearly blind animals help them recognize who’s in their colony and who’s from away

Vocalizations by these nearly blind animals help them recognize who’s in their colony and who’s from away

Naked mole rats live in colonies with a strict hierarchy where the "authoritarian" queen dictates her colony's dialect. (Colin Lewin)

Naked mole rats learn their colony's distinct dialect from their queen, making them one of only a few species whose vocalizations are learned rather than instinctual. 

The animals live in multigenerational maze-like underground colonies in eastern Africa with a single breeding female, similar to colonial insects like ants and bees. 

Scientists in Germany were curious how naked mole rats communicate, thinking it might give insight into how cooperative and social they within their own colony and viciously hostile to "outsiders" from other colonies. 

Alison Barker, a neurobiologist from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, led the work to investigate how these creatures maintain their highly organized social structure. 

Scientists recorded a total of 36,190 chirps made by 166 individuals from seven naked mole rat colonies to analyze the acoustic properties of the individual vocalizations (Felix Petermann / MDC)

Using machine learning, Barker and her colleagues analyzed more than 36-thousand vocalizations, targeting different audio features in the mole-rats greeting calls. The AI was able to distinguish different patterns within the calls of different, colonies, leading the group to conclude that individual colonies had distinct accents or dialects. 

The naked mole rats were also much more responsive to greeting calls from members of their own colony. 

When they cross-fostered a pup with another colony, the pup developed the dialect of its adopted colony. This led them to conclude the dialect was learned, not genetic.

Barker said her study, published in the journal Science, suggests that among species where social cooperation is very important, communication is key.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting

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