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Unusual cone and rod properties in subterranean African mole-rats (Rodentia, Bathyergidae)


: Dr Leo Peichl, as above.


We have determined the presence of spectral cone types, and the population densities of cones and rods, in subterranean mole-rats of the rodent family Bathyergidae, for which light and vision seems of little importance. Most mammals have two spectral cone types, a majority of middle- to long-wave-sensitive (L-) cones, and a minority of short-wave-sensitive (S-)cones. We were interested to see whether the subterranean bathyergids show the same pattern. In three species, Ansell's mole-rat Cryptomys anselli, the giant mole-rat Cryptomys mechowi and the naked mole-rat Heterocephalus glaber, spectral cone types and rods were assessed immunocytochemically with opsin-specific antibodies. All three species had rod-dominated retinae but possessed significant cone populations. A quantitative assessment in C. anselli and C. mechowi revealed surprisingly low photoreceptor densities of 100 000–150 000/mm2, and high cone proportions, ≈ 10% (8000–15 000/mm2). In all three species, the vast majority of the cones were strongly S-opsin-immunoreactive; L-opsin immunoreactivity was much fainter. In C. anselli, ≈ 20% of the cones showed exclusive S-opsin label, ≈ 10% exclusive L-opsin label and ≈ 70% strong S-opsin and faint L-opsin double label (potential dual-pigment cones). This is the first observation in any mammal of an S-opsin dominance and low levels of L-opsin across the entire retina. It contrasts starkly with the situation in the muroid blind mole-rat Spalax ehrenbergi, which has been reported to possess L-opsin but no S-opsin. Evidently, within rodents an adaptation to subterranean life is compatible with very different spectral cone properties.