Non-Breeding Eusocial Mole-Rats Produce Viable Sperm—Spermiogram and Functional Testicular Morphology of Fukomys anselli
Ansell’s mole-rats (Fukomys anselli) are subterranean rodents living in families composed of about 20 members with a single breeding pair and their non-breeding offspring. Most of them remain with their parents for their lifetime and help to maintain and defend the natal burrow system, forage, and care for younger siblings. Since incest avoidance is based on individual recognition (and not on social suppression) we expect that non-breeders produce viable sperm spontaneously. We compared the sperm of breeding and non-breeding males, obtained by electroejaculation and found no significant differences in sperm parameters between both groups. Here, we used electroejaculation to obtain semen for the first time in a subterranean mammal. Spermiogram analysis revealed no significant differences in sperm parameters between breeders and non-breeders. We found significantly larger testes (measured on autopsies and on living animals per ultrasonography) of breeders compared to non-breeders (with body mass having a significant effect). There were no marked histological differences between breeding and non-breeding males, and the relative area occupied by Leydig cells and seminiferous tubules on histological sections, respectively, was not significantly different between both groups. The seminiferous epithelium and to a lesser degree the interstitial testicular tissue are characterized by lesions (vacuolar degenerations), however, this feature does not hinder fertilization even in advanced stages of life. The continuous production of viable sperm also in sexually abstinent non-breeders might be best understood in light of the mating and social system of Fukomys anselli, and the potential to found a new family following an unpredictable and rare encounter with an unfamiliar female (“provoked or induced dispersal”). Apparently, the non-breeders do not reproduce because they do not copulate but not because they would be physiologically infertile. The significantly increased testes volume of breeding males (compared to non-breeders) is in agreement with previously found higher testosterone levels of breeders.