In a recent blog article we mentioned that we provide the naked mole-rat colony with concrete blocks to chew on, and that the animals seem to treat these blocks as new frontiers that they guard and excavate. But can they really tunnel through?
Naked mole-rat’s teeth are big and scary looking, but they are not used for killing prey or chopping things in half. Naked mole-rats use their teeth for eating vegetables and tunneling, also for manipulating objects as we might use our hands. Their teeth are sensitive, versatile tools. They can handle newborn pups without harming them – or chew through concrete by taking many shallow, scraping bites.
This concrete block was flat when we put it in, and the colony quickly hollowed out the inside.
Animal Caretaker Dan Warner wanted something that would last longer and create less rubble. He experimented with concrete until he found a mixture that let the animals excavate, but not very quickly. Chewing concrete takes more than patience – it takes a lot of enamel. Luckily, the teeth of rodents including naked mole-rats, grow throughout their lives, replacing wear and tear so they can keep chewing.
Are they happy with their blocks? We believe that the blocks provide unique enrichment for the colony. The animals treat them differently than other areas. They routinely post an animal there - it is rare to see the block unstaffed by either an excavator or a guard, even when the rest of the colony is eating or sleeping. The mole-rats chew other parts of the exhibit as well – they chew up the edges of all their tubes, and scrape the inside of certain tubes, destroying them over time. But the concrete is by far their first choice.
Recently Dan observed some of our August 6 litter chewing on the concrete. We all see this as a good sign that they are developing well and using their teeth like their older relatives.