Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Naked Mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Introduction to African mole-rats

  • Group of 30 or more species of rodents that live underground in sub-Saharan Africa (Faulkes and Bennett 2013; Faukes, Mgode, et al. 2017)
    • Inhabit a variety of soil types
  • Characteristics (Buffenstein 1996)
    • Streamlined body shape with short limbs
    • Blunt noses
    • Short tails
  • Ecology and behavior (Buffenstein 1996)
    • Live underground
      • Less exposure to aboveground temperature extremes and most predators
      • Experience low oxygen conditions (poorly ventilated environment)
      • Longer distance sight and hearing limits certain communication channels/use of senses
      • Difficult to locate sufficient food
    • Range of social systems (Faulkes and Bennett 2013):

Taxonomy

  • Naked mole-rat placed in its own family, Heterocephalidae (Patterson and Upham 2014; Patterson 2016)
    • Previously in Bathyergidae (African mole-rats)
  • Heterocephalidae and Bathyergidae comprise a monophyletic group (Patterson and Upham 2014; Patterson 2016)

Nomenclature

  • Genus: Heterocephalus
    • Refers to naked mole-rat’s head shape (Jarvis and Sherman 2002)
  • Species: glaber
    • Refers to naked mole-rat’s smooth skin (Jarvis and Sherman 2002)

Synonyms

  • Heterocephalus phillipsi, H. ansorgei, H. dunni, H. stygius (Jarvis and Sherman 2002)
  • Fornaria phillipsi (Jarvis and Sherman 2002)

Common names

  • Naked mole-rat (English) (Patterson 2016)
    • Only African mole-rat without fur coat
  • Hétérocéphale (French) (Patterson 2016)
  • Nacktmull (German) (Patterson 2016)
  • Rata topo lampiña (Spanish) (Patterson 2016)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Desert mole rat (Patterson 2016)
  • Sand puppy (Patterson 2016)
  • “The Methuselah mouse” (Patterson 2016)
    • Refers to the naked mole-rat’s long lifespan

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Naked mole-rat lineage (Family Heterocephalidae) distantly related to other African mole-rats (Family Bathyergidae) (Faulkes, Bennett, et al. 1997; Faulkes et al. 2004; Patterson and Upham 2014; Patterson 2016)
    • Diverged in East Africa approximately 30 to 50 mya (Oligocene)
      • Long independent evolution
      • Diverged long before diversification of other African mole-rats, approximately 18 mya
  • Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis) also eusocial (Faulkes, Bennett, et al. 1997; Faulkes and Bennett 2001; Faulkes and Bennett 2013)
    • Eusociality evolved independently in the naked and Damaraland mole-rats (Jarvis and Bennett 1993)
  • Oldest fossils of ancestral H. glaber from Miocene (11 to 25 mya) (Brett 1986, as cited by Jarvis and Sherman 2002)

Closest extant/living relatives

  • African mole-rats (Family Bathyergidae) (Patterson 2016)

Cultural History

Television and film

Art

Pop Science

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia — mammals

Order: Rodentia — rodents

Family: Heterocephalidae — naked mole-rat

Genus: Heterocephalus

Species: Heterocephalus glaber (Rüppell, 1842) — naked mole-rat

Sources: Patterson and Upham (2014), Patterson (2016)

Unlike Its Relatives

Naked mole-rat exiting acrylic tube

Because of its unusual physical and socio-ecological traits, the naked mole-rate has been extensively studied by scientists.

It is classified in its own taxonomic family, Heterocephalidae, and is only distantly related to other African mole-rats.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

SDZG Library Links