African mole-rats (Bathyergidae) exhibit a wide range of social structures ranging from solitary to eusocial. This allows for studies looking at links between sociality and measurable characteristics such as spatial learning and kin-recognition. Furthermore, the existence of species with differing level of sociality allows for comparison between the highly social species and the solitary species. The existence of differences in spatial learning ability and memory between the sexes has long been debated. Eusocial Damaraland mole-rats (Cryptomys damarensis) and solitary Cape mole-rats (Georychus capensis) were tested to see if there were sex or species differences in the ability to locate food in an artificial maze task with the express purpose of investigating spatial learning and memory. Measurements of the time taken to complete the task, the distance travelled, wrong turns taken, and the average velocity at which animals travelled were used to compare performance between animals. Both sexes in each of the species exhibited learning and a decay in memory over time. The Damaraland mole-rat exhibited superior learning and memory retention when compared to the Cape mole-rat. Male Cape mole-rats had superior learning and longer term memory retention when compared to females of the same species. There was no significant difference in learning curves between male and female Damaraland mole-rats, but this species did exhibit a tendency for females to show better medium term memory retention while males performed better on long term memory trials. Species differences are likely to be linked to social organization and possibly the resultant burrow-structure in the natural environment, while sex-differences may be due to differing life histories. Kin-recognition is important in maintaining the social structure and hierarchy in the eusocial species of African mole-rat, Cryptomys damarensis. Opposite sex sibling pairs from reproductively quiescent colonies were tested to see if exposure to colony urine odour would reinforce recognition of opposite sex siblings and the concomitant incest avoidance. Control sibling pairs from the same colonies were exposed to water. Mating, social, and non-social behaviours were measured in all sibling pairs. In addition, urinary levels of cortisol, progesterone and testosterone were measured to examine the interaction between four factors: colony olfactory cues (urinary odour), hormone levels, mating behaviour and relatedness. Exposure to urinary odour reinforced recognition and was correlated to a decrease in mating behaviour. Hormonal assays suggest that female hormone levels are modified based on exposure to colony urine odour, while males are not affected. Olfactory cues such as colony urinary odour is linked to the alteration and correlation of hormone levels and mating behaviour. The Damaraland mole-rat and other species in the family Bathyergidae provide a useful system for investigating aspects of learning and memory, as well as the potential correlation between cognitive processes and sociality.
Dissertation (MSc (Zoology))--University of Pretoria, 2007.