Naked mole queens can produce over 900 babies in one lifetime. Here’s how her, and a select few males, populate an entire colony.
Naked mole rats are extraordinary mammals that live the entirety of their lives in an underground network of tunnels. They exhibit a social system known as cooperative breeding. Which means that each individual in the population has a specific job to do in order to keep the whole group running as a cohesive unit.
Much like a bee or ant colony, there’s a mole rat queen – the only female in the entire population to have babies. Queens are typically larger and stronger than all other females in the colony. There are just a few males tasked with providing sperm to the queen - but otherwise, the rest of the population doesn't engage in sexual reproduction. Females that don’t breed have one of two jobs: bringing food to the queen or taking care of older offspring. While males typically have jobs like tunnel digging, defending the colony and watching out for predators.
The queen mother mole rat never leaves the tunnels, and her life is dedicated to producing and feeding young. Food, in the form of tubers - nutritionally dense plant structures found underground, akin to potatoes and yams, is the source of all her energy for hydration, gestation and lactation.
Mama gestates a new litter of 10 to 12 pups every few months. The naked mole rat has an extended lifespan of up to 30 years and individual queens have been observed to birth over 900 babies during that time. For a mammal, this is a truly unparalleled phenomenon. Queen mole rats, despite their reproductive feats, even appear to age less than the workers.
Eventually, there will come a time for a new queen to be crowned once the previous one dies. That selection process is one of the few times when naked mole rat females show high levels of aggression. A few of the largest subordinates fight for the top spot until one of them emerges the victor - and she gets to work on a new empire of her own.