The dialects of the surprising rat-mole

The hairless heterocephalus or naked rat-mole is a bizarre almost hairless rodent that lives in complex societies made up of rigid castes. In new studies published in Science it was discovered that each colony has its own dialect and that this is culturally handed down to the new born.

The ability to recognize the geographical origin of people exclusively from the accent and the way they speak is one of the characteristics that distinguish mankind. Pronunciations, inflections and dialects play an important social function and help characterize and strengthen the sense of community. However, man is not the only animal to possess this marked linguistic diversity. The birds, with their songs, have linguistic varieties that can change according to the geographical area, but also whales and other primates use dialects. From today, however, a surprising new species has been added to the list of animals able to “speak” using dialects: the naked rat-mole, more correctly called hairless heterocephalus. These are the results of a new study published in Science by the team led by Gary R. Lewin of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, which also delves into the complex social dynamics and cultural aspects of this unique African mammal. The use of dialects in mole rat colonies The hairless heterocephalus or naked rat-mole (Heterocephalus glaber) is a rodent that lives in the arid grasslands of eastern Africa and certainly does not stand out for its aesthetics. Endowed with poor eyesight and almost completely hairless, it lives underground in very numerous colonies with a social structure divided into rigid castes incredibly similar to that of bees and ants. Each colony has its own queen, who is the only one to reproduce, and all the other individuals have a rigid and very specific functional role: workers, soldiers, just like eusocial insects. But the oddities of this wrinkled-skinned pink rodent don’t stop there. They have a longevity that is surprising to say the least for a rodent and can live for over 30 years. They also seem to never get old, are insensitive to pain, and show incredible resistance to tumors. They have an amount of superpowers to rival the best comic book superheroes. The colonies live within a complex system of underground tunnels where voice communication plays a fundamental role. They are incredibly communicative animals and can often be heard making chirping sounds. Scientists wanted to understand the role of these vocalizations in their social life and recorded 36,190 “chirps” from 166 different individuals divided into 7 colonies. Analyzing the records they found that each colony had its own distinctive dialect which strengthened the cohesion within the group. But there is more. Rat-mole xenophobia This marked spirit of belonging has an even more particular social and evolutionary implication. Being able to recognize an individual by its “voice” helps to identify any “foreign” rats from other colonies. The researchers played the recorded vocalizations to the various individuals and found that the rodents only responded to those from their own colony. Mole rats are incredibly xenophobic, and if an individual comes from a different colony they are recognized and usually killed. The adaptive value of this behavior is probably due to the lack of food that often affects the arid habitats where these animals live, and which accentuates the competition between colonies, favoring cohesion between the members of the same group. The cultural transmission of the dialect The researchers also found that dialects do not have a genetic transmission but are culturally handed down to the new born. To understand this, they introduced three stranger puppies inside a colony where there were already new born. After six months they analyzed the vocalizations and found that the adopted individuals had developed the characteristic dialect of the colony in which they had been inserted. Basically he had been taught. These analyzes, in addition to confirming the cultural transmission of the language, highlighted the queen’s importance in the preservation and dissemination of the dialect. Over the course of the study, one of the colonies lost two queens in no time, and the researchers noticed that the vocalizations of the other mole rats began to vary much more than usual. The dialectal cohesion was thus greatly reduced, and was restored only a few months later with the ascension to the throne of another female as the new queen. The dialectal cohesion, therefore, decreases with the loss of the queen and re-emerges only with the arrival of a new one. This is just the latest discovery concerning one of the most absurd and singular mammals on the planet. What will be next?

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