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Effects of sex and social status on neuromuscular differentiation in the eusocial naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Marianne L Seney, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Naked mole-rats live in large colonies and exhibit a strict reproductive hierarchy. Each colony has 1 breeding female and 1-3 breeding males; all other individuals are non-reproductive subordinates. Subordinates show a remarkable lack of sex differences in behavior and anatomy, but can become reproductive if removed from the colony. The striated perineal muscles and their innervating motoneurons, which are sexually dimorphic in all other mammals examined, are not dimorphic in subordinate naked mole-rats. Here I asked whether sexual differentiation of this neuromuscular system occurs when subordinates become breeders. Sex differences in perineal motoneurons were not observed, regardless of social status. To my surprise counts of motoneurons in Onuf’s nucleus were increased in breeders of both sexes. This was accompanied by a reciprocal decrease in cells in Onuf’s nucleus that were characterized by small soma size. The neuronal changes correlate with increased perineal muscle volumes in breeders. Although not exhibiting typical motoneuron morphology, some small cells fit a neurochemical or functional definition of a motoneuron. I propose that small cells are recruited to the pool of large Onuf’s nucleus motoneurons when subordinate naked mole-rats become breeders. I then looked at naked mole-rats of varying status (subordinates, paired animals that have never reproduced, intact breeders, and gonadectomized breeders) to determine which cues elicit changes in perineal muscles and small cells in Onuf’s nucleus. I found that pairing is sufficient to cause decreases in the population of small cells in Onuf’s nucleus, while production of litters is necessary for increasing in perineal muscle size. The gonads were not necessary to maintain changes in small cells or perineal muscles. I hypothesized that the lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats might be related to their unusual social structure. To test this, I compared the genitalia and perineal muscles in three African mole-rat species: the naked mole-rat, the solitary silvery mole-rat, and the Damaraland mole-rat, a species considered to be eusocial, but with less reproductive skew than naked mole-rats. My findings support a relationship between social structure, mating system, and sexual differentiation.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Seney, Marianne L, "Effects of sex and social status on neuromuscular differentiation in the eusocial naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber)" (2009). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3380018.