We report the discovery of intraspecific variation in both colony composition and patterns of paternity in two populations of the social common mole-rat Cryptomys hottentotus hottentotus. These two populations represent the mesic and arid habitat extremes of the species’ broad ecological range in South Africa. Until recently colonies of the common mole-rat were thought to consist of familial groups whereby all colony members were the offspring of a monogamous reproductive pair. The remaining colony members were thought to forego reproduction until both social and ecological conditions favoured dispersal and opportunities for independent outbreeding. Results from genetic assignment tests using microsatellite markers indicate that while colony composition is dominated by familial groups, colonies within both populations included both adult and subadult foreign conspecifics. Analysis of parentage reveals that the social organization of C. h. hottentotus is not that of strict monogamy; paternity of offspring was not assigned consistently to the largest, most dominant male within the colony. Moreover, a number of significantly smaller males were found to sire offspring, suggesting a sneak-mating strategy by subordinate within-colony males. Extra-colony extra-pair paternity (ECP) was also found to characterize C. h. hottentotus colonies, occurring with similar frequencies in both habitats. Both dominant established breeding males and subordinate males were identified as siring young in nonsource colonies. Furthermore, established breeding males were found to sire extra-colony young in the same season as siring young within their source colonies. We discuss the significance of these results within the context of the divergent ecological regimes characterizing the two sites and observe that our results revisit the accuracy of using behavioural and morphological characters, which have structured the basis of our understanding of the behavioural ecology of this species, as indicators of breeding status in mark–recapture studies.