Extended Longevity of Reproductives Appears to be Common in Fukomys Mole-Rats (Rodentia, Bathyergidae)
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) contain several social, cooperatively breeding species with low extrinsic mortality and unusually high longevity. All social bathyergids live in multigenerational families where reproduction is skewed towards a few breeding individuals. Most of their offspring remain as reproductively inactive “helpers” in their natal families, often for several years. This “reproductive subdivision” of mole-rat societies might be of interest for ageing research, as in at least one social bathyergid (Ansell's mole-rats Fukomys anselli), breeders have been shown to age significantly slower than non-breeders. These animals thus provide excellent conditions for studying the epigenetics of senescence by comparing divergent longevities within the same genotypes without the inescapable short-comings of inter-species comparisons. It has been claimed that many if not all social mole-rat species may have evolved similar ageing patterns, too. However, this remains unclear on account of the scarcity of reliable datasets on the subject. We therefore analyzed a 20-year breeding record of Giant mole-rats Fukomys mechowii, another social bathyergid species. We found that breeders indeed lived significantly longer than helpers (ca. 1.5–2.2fold depending on the sex), irrespective of social rank or other potentially confounding factors. Considering the phylogenetic positions of F. mechowii and F. anselli and unpublished data on a third Fukomys-species (F. damarensis) showing essentially the same pattern, it seems probable that the reversal of the classic trade-off between somatic maintenance and sexual reproduction is characteristic of the whole genus and hence of the vast majority of social mole-rats.
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