Rodent Activity Transmissions* (RAT) systems uses real-time data to allow us a peek into the lives of a colony of naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber).

Naked mole-rats are unique among mammals, with unusual features that result from extreme adaptations to living underground. They have become an important model system for healthy aging, they resist cancer, they are studied to help us understand how complex societies evolve and are maintained, and even for how social environment can affect fertility. Studying an animal with what is at first glance a bizarre lifestyle, can inform us about more general biological principles of wide importance to us and other species.

In addition to giving us a deeper understanding of animal behaviour through real-time tracking and data collection, we are exploring the naked mole-rat data through visualisation, sound, animation, and kinetic sculpture.

*RAT also stands for Research in Art & Technology, a nod to iRAT founded in London, 1969.

Photography by Lorna Ellen Faulkes, commissioned by Julie Freeman and Dr. Chris Faulkes.

The animals eyes are blocked out for privacy reasons. See below.

Colony Omega

Last update: January 2017

We are tracking Colony Omega in real-time - a colony of naked mole-rats maintained in an artificial environment designed for behavioural observation; there is no experimentation conducted on these animals. The colony includes three pups born in February 2016.

What's the gender distribution?

50% male vs 50% female
Fairly equal, a recent litter of pups contained all males.

What is the age range?

The youngest is less than 12 months, the eldest is over 21 years old! Numbers above are in years. Blue dots represent females, black dots are males.

How do the generations evolve?

As far as we know, the record litter for a naked mole-rat colony is 27 pups! This graph shows the colony growth over time. Breeding began in 2006 when a Queen was introduced to a new community.

Which are the most active animals?

This plot shows activity over the past 24 hour period. Activity is based on how frequently animals pass the sensors around the burrow.

Most popular paths

This diagram shows which routes in the burrow are taken most often. For instance if route 4 to 5 is the thickest we know that the animals are visiting the toilet a lot!

Do individuals have a regular route?

Often Rarely

These "heat" maps show the last 24 hours of activity for each animal. Where the lines are darkest it shows where that animal hangs out most often. The patterns are different as members of the community have different roles, some maybe defending a certain area. The queen is marked orange, males are black and females blue.

Live observation

Last update: January 2017

This visualisation shows the position of each naked mole-rat in their nest. You can use the slider to scroll through past data and see where individuals like to go.

Each animal has a tag (a passive integrated transponder) implanted under it’s skin, the type vet’s put in dogs and cats but smaller. A series of sensors placed around the burrow detect when a tagged animal is close by. We log the tag ID, sensor ID, and exact time data on a server where we can retrieve it to calculate new data (such as speed) and create live animation.

Current naked mole-rat positions at

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This is a live data representation of the colony (updated every 5 min). The last known position of each animal is represented by a circle. The burrow we've drawn here is simplified, the real one is made of clear tubes with feeding, toilet and sleeping chambers.

About naked mole-rats

▶︎ Where do they come from? Where do they come from?

Naked mole-rats are subterranean and are found in the arid regions of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Our colonies are the descendants of Kenyan animals originally caught by Professor Jenny Jarvis (University of Cape Town) and captive bred, first in Cape Town, then in London.

▶︎ How long do they live? How long do they live?

Naked mole-rats may live to 32 years; this is approximately nine times longer than a similarly sized mouse and five times longer than predicted for their body size. Moreover, they resist the usual signs of ageing until very old. The discovery of their longevity has led to naked mole-rats emerging as a unique organism to study ageing and human health. A long lifespan and overlapping generations also help to underpin their cooperative eusocial lifestyle. Breeding females can reproduce well into old age, indeed one female is known to have reared more than 900 offspring in her 24-year lifespan.

▶︎ What is that weird eating habit? What is that weird eating habit?

Like rabbits, and some other rodents, Naked mole-rats may eat their own or other colony members’ poo (coprophagy). This unpalatable act is very important for health and wellbeing, providing extra nutrients and the transfer of beneficial symbiotic microbes – rather like a probiotic yogurt. Their usual diet consists of tubers, like sweet potatoes. Much nicer.

▶︎ Are they cancer resistant super heroes? Are they cancer resistant super heroes?

Potentially, yes! One aspect of naked mole-rats negligible senescence is a resistance to cancer, which is thought to be due to the production of a substance responsible for their stretchy skin, which in turn is an adaptation to living underground in tight tunnels. Research into this cancer resistance is giving scientists new insights into the pathways leading to tumor formation, and may one day produce new treatments.

▶︎ Are they coming or going? Are they coming or going?

Naked mole-rats run forwards and backwards with equal speed – this is very unusual for a mammal. Understanding their backwards gait may have applications in robotics.

▶︎ What is eusociality? What is eusociality?

Being eusocial means living in a cooperative society. Naked mole-rats are the mammalian equivalent of eusocial insects like bees and termites. Groups commonly contain 100, but up to 300 have been recorded. At the top of the hierarchy is a dominant breeding queen who mates with 1-3 breeding males. The rest of the colony do not reproduce but “work” (small animals do more) or “defend” (larger animals). Their roles change as they grow.

The queen behaviourally harasses the non-breeders and the “stress” shuts down their reproductive systems, so both sexes of “adult” animals are held in a state of pre-puberty.

It was their eusociality that first drew the interest of scientists, who sought to understand the costs and benefits to this extreme social and cooperative behaviour – why sacrifice your own reproduction to help others breed? Some of the answers lie in “kin selection theory” – by helping close relatives to successfully reproduce, you indirectly pass on some of your own genes (inclusive fitness).

Their natural and extreme socially-induced suppression of fertility is of great interest, because stress is a major cause of fertility in many animals, including humans, and the mechanisms are likely to be common to all.

▶︎ You win or you DIE! You win or you DIE!

“If you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die…” will be a phrase familiar to many, and one that applies to naked mole-rat society. The Queen is the most dominant individual within the colony and often achieves her position by fighting with and killing rivals. Once “on the throne” she can never revert to a non-breeder and must hold her position by asserting her authority – or be deposed.

▶︎ What's with the inbreeding? What's with the inbreeding?

Because establishing new colonies is risky and difficult, naked mole-rats may sometimes be forced to breed with close relatives (ewww!). It is thought that harmful recessive genes, which can lead to physical and mental issues, may have been purged from populations following several cycles of such facultative (or circumstantial) inbreeding.

▶︎ You have one job... You have one job...

Specific “disperser males” with a particular body shape, physiology and behaviour have been discovered which move to other colonies to spread their own genes, and to offset the effects of any inbreeding.

▶︎ Cold paws, cold heart, and flea free! Cold paws, cold heart, and flea free!

Naked mole-rats have a very low body temperature for a mammal (at 32˚C) and a low basal metabolic rate (30% lower than predicted by body size). They have lost the typical mammalian “warm-bloodedness” or endothermy – they are effectively cold-blooded, or ectothermic; they have no subcutaneous fat layer, no sweat glands and do not shiver to generate body heat when cold. Together with the naked skin, these characteristics enable them to gain and lose heat quickly and behaviourally thermoregulate in their burrow, where temperatures are quite constant – they have a “high thermal conductance”. A secondary benefit is that with a lack of fur, external parasites are discouraged. These reduced energy requirements are useful in an environment where the food supply may be unpredictable.

About RAT.systems

We are experimenting with the many ways that scientific data can be used in art and science. This project aims to collect a valuable body of behavioural data that can help us understand more about the naked mole-rat, and more about how we absorb data in different formats.

RAT.app

A naked mole-rat colony in your pocket! Download the app to monitor Colony Omega at any time. The app features the artwork, gallery and data visualisation. And it's free.

A Selfless Society (2016)

Online audio-visual artwork

A Selfless Society is an abstract animation influenced by live data from the naked mole-rat colony. Creating work with real-time, live data from living systems can stimulate unexpected connections to nature. The animals bring their own unpredictably to the artwork which cannot be anticipated or synthesised. As we observe the colony’s activity patterns we are invited to consider new social models for family and society. We may question whether we, like naked mole-rats, could became eusocial. How would this alter our expectations of own gender identities, actions or motivations?

This is Nature Now (2016)

Silicone sculptures

This is Nature Now is a sculptural work that explores the body language of objects. It uses soft robotic techniques to represent live data from Colony Omega through physical movements of an artificial material. The work asks us to reflect on how technology mediates our experience of the natural world, and how we now encounter nature through our devices and broadcast mechanisms. Can living things be represented through data? And if so, what are the traits a non-biological object requires to convey this sense of life?

This is Nature Now was first exhibited at the Utopia Treasury at Somerset House, London, as part of A Naked Mole Rat Eutopia in October 2016.

Portrait gallery

The portrait gallery of Colony Omega, photographed by Lorna Ellen Faulkes, is displayed in the exhibition with each animal's eyes blocked out (or redacted). This highlights the need for us to question data privacy and the rights of the animals we are tracking and observing, particulary animals in the wild. An example of the importance of this is seen in safari tours where tourists posting photographs of endangered animals which can help poachers to find their prey through the location metadata. Even academic articles which describe newly discovered, can help illegal collectors poach rare animals and plants.

Future work

The data collected as part of this project is a unique data set that will allow Dr. Faulkes and other biologists to explore patterns in the animal behaviours. We hope to discover more about the colony's circadian (daily) rhythms, as they normally live in total darkness away from the usual light cues used by other animals, including humans. We also hope to find out more about how the community splits into roles, when or if these roles change, and how changes in the environment (light and noise) affect their behaviours. The behavioural experiments will continue over the coming years.

Opening up the data

The constantly growing data set will be released as a set of open data for anyone to use in which ever way they'd like on OpenSensors. Marcin Ignac has developed a script that will let you create animations with the real-time data on OpenProcessing. Please contact Julie if you are interested in using the data.

Team

RAT.systems is led by Julie Freeman with Dr. Chris Faulkes and the team. It is supported by the Centre for Public Engagement at Queen Mary University of London and Arts Council England.

With special thanks to Prof. Mark Sandler, Prof. Geraint Wiggins, and Prof. Kaspar Althoefer. Additional thanks to Hannah Redler, the Utopia crew: Grace Perrett and Karishma Rafferty at Somerset House, Tony Bailey, Helge Wurdemann and Lukas Lindenroth (for soft robotics inspiration), Yodit at OpenSensors.io, the Open Data Institute, and staff and students at the Media & Arts Technology DTC at QMUL.