Central visual system of the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber)



Naked mole-rats are fossorial rodents native to eastern Africa that spend their lives in extensive subterranean burrows where visual cues are poor. Not surprisingly, they have a degenerated eye and optic nerve, suggesting they have poor visual abilities. However, little is known about their central visual system. To investigate the organization of their central visual system, we injected a neuronal tracer into the eyes of naked mole-rats and mice to compare the neural structures mediating vision. We found that the superior colliculus and lateral geniculate nucleus were severely atrophied in the naked mole-rat. The olivary pretectal nucleus was reduced but still retained its characteristic morphology, possibly indicating a role in light detection. In addition, the suprachiasmatic nucleus is well innervated and resembles the same structure in other rodents. The naked mole-rat appears to have selectively lost structures that mediate form vision while retaining structures needed for minimal entrainment of circadian rhythms. Similar results have been reported for other mole-rat species. Taken together, these data suggest that light detection may still play an important role in the lives of these “blind” animals: most likely for circadian entrainment or setting seasonal rhythms. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.