Evolution of African mole-rat sociality: burrow architecture, rainfall and foraging in colonies of the cooperatively breeding Fukomys mechowii


  • Editor: Virginia Hayssen

Steven C. Le Comber, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London, London, UK.
Email: s.c.lecomber@qmul.ac.uk


African mole rats (Bathyergidae) offer an excellent system with which to test theories relating to the evolution and maintenance of sociality in mammals. The aridity food distribution hypothesis (AFDH) suggests that, within the bathyergids, sociality has evolved in response to patterns of rainfall, its effects on food distribution, and the subsequent costs and risks of foraging and dispersal. Here, in the first detailed study of burrow architecture in a social mole-rat species, with data from 32 burrows, we show that in the giant mole-rat Fukomys mechowii burrow fractal dimension increases with colony size and is higher during the rainy season than during the dry season. The mass of food in the burrow increases with fractal dimension and is higher during the rainy season than during the dry season. These results link for the first time colony size, burrow architecture, rainfall and foraging success and provide support for two assumptions of the AFDH, namely that (1) in arid conditions burrowing may be severely constrained by the high costs of digging; and (2) the potential risks of failing to locate food may be mitigated by increases in colony size.