Spalax can live up to 54 years!
Spalax Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Spalax microphthalmus
Spalax Conservation Status
Spalanx burrows include separate toilet rooms that they fill and seal off.
The spalax is a genus of rodents that lives in Eastern Europe and Western and Central Asia. They are a kind of blind mole rat that is completely blind and spends its life underground. The spalax digs extensive burrows with living chambers, storage rooms, and even toilet rooms it walls off after they become full. Astonishingly, it can live up to 54 years old! It is adapted to low oxygen conditions and is known to be cancer-resistant, so it is a species of great interest to medical science. There are 8 subspecies of spalax. The type species is Spalax microphthalmus, the greater blind mole-rat, which is found in Russia and Ukraine. Thus, the information in this article will focus mainly on this species.
- Spalax is a genus of blind mole rat that includes 8 subspecies.
- Their range includes Eastern Europe and Western and Central Asia.
- They are herbivores, eating underground roots. They especially like onions.
- They have light brown-grey fur all over their bodies and enlarged incisors they use for digging.
- Species of spalax are blind and live subterranean lives.
- Because they have adapted to low-oxygen conditions and are cancer-resistant, they are of great interest to medical researchers.
- Their burrows include living chambers, storage rooms, and toilets all connected by tunnels.
- They can live up to 54 years old.
- Although spalax are generally not endangered, warfare in some of the countries where they live is a tragic and ongoing threat.
Spalax Scientific Name
The scientific name of the type species is Spalax microphthalmus. Spalax is a Greek word meaning “mole.” Microphthalmus is Latin for “small eye.” So the scientific name means “small-eyed mole.”
The appearance of the spalax reflects their subterranean lifestyle. They have small, weak eyes covered by flaps of skin and no visible ears. They have chubby little cylindrical bodies with stubby legs. Their bodies are 4-13 inches long and they weigh from .25 to 1.5 pounds. They are covered all over in soft fur in variable shades of grey and brown. One of their adorable characteristics is a set of large buck teeth that they use as shovels to help them burrow. This makes them different from moles, which dig with modified front claws rather than teeth.
Spalax Evolution and History
The spalax are part of the Spalacidae family of subterranean rodents. The relationship between the different subfamilies within Spalacidae is unclear and controversial. Generally speaking, researchers believe the family started in Asia in the Late Oligocene (33.9-23 million years ago). Molecular data indicates the family split into four clades about 25 million years ago. One of these was the Spalacidae, which originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and expanded north from there. They likely migrated in that direction as the climate changed and their preferred diet became more available further north.
One of the evolutionary adaptations of this species is that it can survive in extremely low oxygen conditions underground, and it is also highly resistant to cancer. This makes it of great interest to medical researchers – particularly those specializing in lung cancer.
The greater blind mole rat is a solitary species, except when mating or raising young. When adults encounter one another they bite one another’s faces until one of them leaves or dies. Although they are a subterranean species, they will come above ground to create burrows in better locations or to search for mates. They are most vulnerable above ground and, if threatened, will immediately start to dig. Their burrow networks usually include one or two larger chambers lined with grass and leaves. Moreover, these will have tunnels branching off of them along with 4-9 storerooms for winter food. Believe it or not, their burrow networks can be 300-1,000 feet across. They even build special toilet rooms and seal them off after they become filled.
Spalax eat their food from the roots, pulling it down into their burrows and storing for later what they don’t eat. In the spring and early summer, they eat tender shoots and sprouts. However, in the late summer and fall they eat more roots and begin storing food in earnest for the winter. They don’t hibernate per se, but in winter they are not as active. Nevertheless, confining their activities to the lower parts of their tunnel network helps them stay warmer. They accomplish most of their tunnel-digging in the spring, in search of food since their winter food stores have been depleted.
Spalax microphthalmus, the greater blind mole-rat, is plentiful in Ukraine and Russia in the vast, agriculturally rich area between the Dnieper and Volga Rivers. It lives in fertile, rich soil such as that found in forests, cultivated fields, gardens, and orchards. Farmers consider it a pest.
Spalax ehrenbergi lives in the countries around the eastern Mediterranean, including northeastern Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and southern Turkey. Their habitat there is scattered and limited to areas that have the soil conditions they like.
The greater blind mole-rat eats dandelion, cow parsnip, chicory, and the seedlings of trees like oak, mulberry, and acacia. They eat leaves and shoots in the spring, and later in the year eat more roots and bulbs. When mole rats infest gardens, they often prefer the taste of onions. They also store food for the winter. In fact, sometimes a single individual will accumulate 20-30 pounds of stored food.
Spalax Predators and Threats
When facing a predator or other threat, spalax individuals immediately start digging to get to the safety of the earth. Depending on the diversity of species in their environment, spalax can be food for any number of carnivorous predators: snakes, eagles, buzzards, wild boar, jackals, and domestic dogs. Moreover, human beings are also a threat to them, poisoning them or digging them up when they threaten cultivated land.
Spalax Reproduction and Life Cycle
Females reach sexual maturity at two years old. They breed only once a year, giving birth to litters of 2-5 young in the spring (February-May). They have three pairs of nipples for their young to drink milk. Spalax can live a remarkably long time. Their lifespan can range from just two years to an astounding 54 years!
The greater blind mole rat is classified as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List. Other subspecies of spalax are at various levels of threat and are sometimes endangered in one country but not in another. The greatest threats to various species of spalax are the agricultural-related activities of humans. This can include directly poisoning spalax as agricultural threats or farming practices that plow up or flood their burrows.
Unfortunately, the effects of warfare are also damaging to the spalax and many other wild species. For example, Ukraine, Libya, and Syria in recent years have all been scenes of intense fighting that has damaged the natural ecosystem and the farms and orchards where the spalax feeds and reproduces. War damages the environment many decades after the cessation of hostilities with threats like mines and other unexploded munitions and pollution such as leaking fuel tanks in abandoned military equipment.
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Spalax FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How many species of spalax are there?
Spalax is a genus of blind mole-rats that includes 50 subspecies.
What is the range of spalax?
Various subspecies of spalax, the blind mole-rat, live in Southeastern Europe and Western Asia. They can be found in the Balkans, Ukraine, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
Are spalax blind mole-rats really blind?
Yes. They live a subterranean lifestyle and are completely blind.
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- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spalax
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_blind_mole-rat
- Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Available here: https://www.gbif.org/species/2438883
- Mammal Review, Available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mam.12170