Naked mole rats, small, hairless mammals, are about to get a new home at the National Zoo, which will have built-in electronic equipment for performing a task that defies the naked eye: telling these almost identical animals apart.
All of the animals are about the same size, (about three inches long) the zoo said Monday, and have the same pinkish skin, and large incisor teeth. So obviously it is no easy assignment to distinguish among these underground creatures.
Players on sports teams wear numbers for easy identification, and the zoo’s ID system also uses numbers. Electronic chips inserted under the animals’ skin already allow keepers equipped with chip readers to tell one naked mole-rat from the others.
In the zoo’s new mole-rat digs, tunnels have been installed for the animals use. At one point in these passageways the zoo has installed a chip reader.
When the rats pass the reader, the zoo said, their personal information will show up on a screen outside the new habitat. Divulged to visitors will be the animal’s chip number, its birth date, and its gender.
In theory at least, zoo visitors might come to know the numbers of favorites, and watch for the numbers to reappear over the course of weeks, months and years.
And, intriguing as the idea of animals identifying themselves electronically, the idea seems to have been around for a while. A former curator said he had a grant in the mid nineties to install electronic recognition equipment for the naked mole-rates.
“Individual information about the mole-rats along with video clips would be displayed on a computer screen in the exhibit as the mole-rats passed over the reader,” said David S. Kessler, who was the longest-serving keeper when he retired in 2014.
In Monday’s announcement the zoo said the new exhibit will open Sept. 1 at the Small Mammal House. But the exhibit also will include a new webcam that will provide virtual visitors a 24-hour-a- day look at the colony of 17 animals, members of a species that apparently lack any longing to go outdoors to play.
The broadcast is to begin Friday, the zoo said.