Who cares about subterranean mammals

Although at least some of the underground dwellers have been known for many years, their biology has remained unstudied. This may be explained by the cryptic way of life of subterranean animals, and technical problems related with keeping, breeding, and observing them. The fact is, scientists were always more fascinated by animals coping with complicated environments and solving seemingly difficult and complex problems than by those encountered by mammals underground (sensitive vision versus blindness; echolocation in a high-frequency range versus hearing in a human auditory range; navigating across hundreds or thousands of miles versus maze orientation across tens of feet; thermoregulation in cold environments versus life in a thermally buffered burrow, etc.). Interestingly, although many preserved specimens of moles (i.e., insectivorous subterranean mammals) and mole-rats (subterranean rodents) have been collected and deposited in museums, not even the study of morphological digging specializations has received the attention it has deserved. Textbooks of biology in general and evolutionary biology in particular have brought diverse examples for convergent evolution, yet one of the most remarkable examples—convergent evolution of subterranean mammals—has rarely been mentioned.

It may be of interest to examine the literature dealing with ecology, evolution, morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations of subterranean mammals. Although there are some relevant scientific papers published as early as at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the real exponential growth of the research and publishing activity referring to subterranean mammals started in the 1940s. Since then, the number of publications has doubled about every 10 years. Thus, 56% of about 1,300 scientific papers addressing at least partly adaptations of subterranean mammals and published to date (March 2003) appeared after 1990, a further 25% are dated 1981 to 1990, and another 11% appeared between 1971 and 1980. The interest in adaptations of subterranean mammals

The common mole-rat (Cryptomys hottentotus) has a oval-shaped body with short legs to enable it to move through small tunnels. (Photo by © Peter Johnson/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

has been triggered particularly by two seminal papers on the blind mole-rat, Spalax, published in 1969, both authored or co-authored by Eviatar Nevo of the University of Haifa. In 1979, a review article (which has since become a citation classic) by Nevo stimulated considerable research into the physiology, sensory biology, communication, temporal and spatial orientation, ecology, taxonomy, and phylogeny of burrowing rodents. A second stimulus triggering the interest in subterranean mole-rats, particularly in their social behavior, came in 1981 with the pioneering studies of Jennifer U. M. Jarvis, when she reported on eusociality in the naked mole-rat, and in 1991, when a book was published on the evolution and behavioral ecology of naked mole-rats and related bathyergids. Since then, several international symposia on subterranean mammals have been convened and four books in English were published by renowned publishing houses within just two years (1999-2001).

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