03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
DOES MOTHER NATURE HAVE A SENSE OF humor, or was she just having an off-day 40 million years ago when she came up with the Heterocephalus glaber? The naked mole rat may only measure about 4 inches from nose to base of tail, but visually, with its hairless, pink skin, beady eyes and huge buckteeth, it looms large in the annals of homeliness. Too much for even a mother to love?
Not so, says Randy Morgan, surrogate mom to the 32 baldies in residence at the Cincinnati Zoo—one of a handful of zoos worldwide that house the little rodents. "They are the only mammal that lives colony-style, like insects," says Morgan, himself an entomologist. Indeed, the East African desert natives live underground in tunnel towns, like ants.
For entertainment, there's courting the queen rat. Since she doesn't see well, her suitors appeal mostly to her sense of smell. "To attract attention from the queen and to identify themselves as belonging to her colony," says Morgan, "the males roll in the communal urine and feces pile." Sounds a little like fraternity life.