Egyptian blind mole rat (Spalax aegyptiacus)

Also known as: Middle East blind mole rat, Palestine mole rat
Synonyms: Nannospalax ehrenbergi, Spalax ehrenbergi
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderRodentia
FamilySpalacidae
GenusSpalax (1)
SizeAverage head-body length: 18.4 cm (2)
Weight200 g (3)

Classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Egyptian blind mole rat is a rodent that is superbly adapted to life underground (4). Its barrel-shaped body, short legs, and lack of an external tail are all adaptations to life in a burrow (4), and, as its name suggests (1), it possesses functionless eyes, buried beneath the skin (4). The long, powerful incisors are efficient tools for digging, and the Egyptian blind mole rat can seal its lips behind the incisors, in order to avoid consuming any soil while excavating its burrow (2) (4). The velvety fur is brown in colour and the feet are pale silver on the upper surface. The nose is soft and flat with thick, protruding hairs that reach the eyes. Male Egyptian blind mole rats are slightly larger than the females (2).  

The Egyptian blind mole rat is found only in Egypt and Libya (5) (6).

As a subterranean species, the Egyptian blind mole rat inhabits burrows, in steppe, semi-desert and the edges of deserts (1) (2). It is often found close to its preferred food source, the plant Asphodelus microcarpus, and in cultivated lands such as barley fields (2). It can dig burrows in almost any soil type (2), except for moving sands (7).

The Egyptian blind mole rat lives in burrows under the ground, which are typically around 40 centimetres in length and 46 centimetres deep, and consist of different compartments, such as food storage and nesting areas (2) (8). While using the forelimbs to scrape away the soil and the head to compact much of the soil to the sides, the Egyptian blind mole rat also pushes lots of soil upwards, resulting in mounds at the surface that can reach 20 centimetres in height (2). Producing these extensive burrows is a highly energy-demanding activity and the oxygen levels underground are low; therefore, the Egyptian blind mole rat’s muscles are adapted to use oxygen efficiently (9).

The Egyptian blind mole rat uses scent to mark the borders of its burrows, and male mole rats are deterred from entering a burrow if it has been marked by another male (10). If individuals do meet they are probably very aggressive, although this has only currently been observed in Egyptian blind mole rats in captivity (2). Interestingly, it has been found that the Egyptian blind mole rat navigates its way through the underground tunnels using the earth’s magnetic field (8).

Spending nearly all its time below ground, the Egyptian blind mole rat forages for plant parts growing amongst the soil, such as roots, bulbs and tubers (2). During the summer months, when temperatures soar, the Egyptian blind mole rat burrows deeper into the ground (up to 120 centimetres deep), to cooler soils. This far from the surface there is very little to eat, so the Egyptian blind mole rat gathers and hoards food in the winter months to store for the summer (11). Only occasionally does the Egyptian blind mole rat venture above ground, to collect leaves from some plants, such as Asphodelus microcarpus, to search for a new territory, or to find a mate (2).

On average, the female Egyptian blind mole rat produces one litter every year, commonly between January and March. A typical litter contains three or four young, although some litters may be as large as nine (12). Individuals communicate with each other to initiate mating, using a fairly loud, low frequency call. The Egyptian blind mole rat is also capable of making five other types of call, described as distress, threat, attack, invitation and crying calls (13), all of which are of low frequency; due to its poor hearing and underground habitat, it cannot hear high frequencies (14). As well as producing vocal calls, it is thought that the Egyptian blind mole rat can also communicate by tapping its head on the tunnel walls. There is evidence that other individuals hear these sounds when they press their lower jaw against the side of the burrow and the sound waves travel through the bones of the jaw to the inner ear, in a process known as ‘seismic communication’ (15).

The Egyptian blind mole rat currently faces no major threats, although in agricultural lands, ploughing is known to disturb the mole rat’s burrows, which may impact populations (1).

There are currently no specific conservation measures in place for this species, as there is no need for them at present; however, this mole rat can be found in some protected areas such as the Kouf National Park in Libya (1).

Checked (24/08/10) by Dr Francis Gilbert, Associate Professor, University of Nottingham.
http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~plzfg/

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Osborn, D.J. and Helmy, I. (1980) The contemporary land mammals of Egypt (including Sinai). Fieldiana, 5: 1-579.
  3. Arieli, R. and Ar, A. (1979) Ventilation of a fossorial mole rat (Spalax ehrenbergi) in hypoxic and hypercapnic conditions. Journal of Applied Physiology, 47: 1011-1017.
  4. Hoath, R. (2009) A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo. 
  5. Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. Third Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Available at:
    http://www.bucknell.edu/MSW3/
  6. Gilbert, F. (2010) Pers. comm.
  7. Nevo, E., Heth, G. and Beiles, A. (1982) Population structure and evolution in subterranean mole rats. Evolution, 36(6): 1283-1289.
  8. Kimchi, T. and Terkel, J. (2001) Magnetic compass orientation in the blind mole rat Spalax ehrenbergi. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 204: 751-758.
  9. Avivi, A., Band, M., Joel, A., Shenzer, P. and Coleman, R. (2009) Adaptive features of skeletal muscles of mole rats (Spalax ehrenbergi) to intensive activity under subterranean hypoxic conditions. Acta Histochemica, 111: 415-419.
  10. Zuri, I., Gazit, I. and Terkel, J. (1997) Effect of scent-marking in delaying territorial invasion in the blind mole-rat Spalax ehrenbergi. Behavior, 134: 867-880.
  11. Heth, G., Golenberg, E.M. and Nevo, E. (1989) Foraging strategy in a subterranean rodent, Spalax ehrenbergi: a test case for optimal foraging theory. Oecologia, 79: 496-505.
  12. Nevo, E. (1961) Observations on Israeli populations of the mole rat Spalax ehrenbergi Nehring. Mammalia, 25: 127-144.
  13. Heth, G., Frankenberg, E. and Nevo, E. (1988) “Courtship” call of subterranean mole rats (Spalax ehrenbergi): physical analysis. Journal of Mammalogy, 69(1): 121-125.
  14. Heffner, R.S. and Heffner, H.E. (1992) Hearing and sound localization in blind mole rats (Spalax ehrenbergi). Hearing Research, 62(2): 206-216.
  15. Rado, R., Himelfarb, M., Arensburg, B., Terkel, J. and Wollberg, Z. (1989) Are seismic communication signals transmitted by bone conduction in the blind mole rat? Hearing Research, 41(1): 23-29.