The blind mole rat Spalax ehrenbergi is a solitary, subterranean rodent that digs and inhabits a system of branching tunnels, with no above-ground exits, which it never leaves unless forced to. To survive, the mole rat must be able to orient efficiently in its tunnel system. The sensory channels available for spatial orientation in the subterranean environment are restricted in comparison with those existing above ground. This study examined the possibility that the mole rat is able to perceive and use the earth's magnetic field to orient in space. Experiments were performed using a device constructed from a pair of electromagnetic ‘Helmholtz coils’, which create a magnetic field whose direction and strength can be altered. In the first experiment, we tested a group of mole rats (N=33) in an eight-armed maze under the earth's natural magnetic field to determine whether they have directional preferences for the location of their sleeping nest, food chamber and toilet site. A second group of mole rats (N=30) was tested for their directional preference after the earth's magnetic field had been experimentally shifted by 180 degrees. We found that the first group exhibited a significant preference (P<0.001) to build both their sleeping nest and their food store in the southern sector of the maze, whereas the second group shifted the location of their nests (P<0.01) and food store (P<0.05), to the northern sector of the maze, corresponding to the shift in the magnetic field. In the second experiment, we tested whether the magnetic compass orientation found in the first experiment depends on a light stimulus by testing a group of mole rats in the eight-armed maze under total darkness. No significant difference in directional preference between light and dark test conditions was observed. It can be concluded, therefore, that, in contrast to some amphibians and birds, magnetic compass orientation in the mole rat is independent of light stimulation. In the third experiment, we examined whether mole rats (N=24) use the earth's magnetic field as a compass cue to orient in a labyrinth. In the first stage (trials 1–13), the animals were trained to reach a goal box at the end of a complex labyrinth until all individuals had learned the task. In the second stage (trial 14), half the trained mole rats underwent another labyrinth trial under the earth's natural magnetic field, while the other half were tested under a magnetic field shifted by 180 degrees. We found a significant decrease (P<0.001) in performance of the mole rats tested under the shifted magnetic field compared with the group tested under the natural magnetic field. The findings from these experiments prove that the mole rat is able to perceive and use the earth's magnetic field to orient in space.
- © 2001 by Company of Biologists