Iridescence identified in golden moles

25 January, 2012

Golden Mole
Golden Mole
Source: Museum Victoria

A team of scientists has made the first discovery of iridescence produced in the hairs of golden moles, a rare characteristic in mammals.

Published today in Biology Letters, this new finding challenges previous scientific explanation for the evolutionary origins of bright iridescent colouration in animals. The study revealed that, despite its rarity in mammals, iridescence in the blind golden moles of Africa is produced in the same way as other animal groups.

“Golden moles are rare among mammals in that their hairs produce a rainbow of colours when viewed from various angles, much like the surface of a compact disc,” said Dr Kevin Rowe, Senior Curator of Mammals, Museum Victoria.

“Iridescent coloration plays a key role in attracting mates in many birds, reptiles, butterflies and beetles.”

“The way golden moles produce iridescent colouration is similar to other animals but it has an entirely different function,” said Dr Kevin Rowe.

Co-author of the research paper, Dr Karen Rowe, Research Associate at Museum Victoria, explained the primary mechanism of iridescent colouration in golden moles.

“The smooth surface and regular layering of hair scales – resulting in iridescence in golden moles –did not evolve for attracting mates or for camouflaging themselves from predators,” said Dr Rowe. “It is most likely used to reduce drag and damage while the moles swim through sand and soil. The colours they produce are merely a by-product.”     

This new discovery challenges the view that bright colours evolved in animals only to attract mates. Different animal species can evolve similarly complex traits for entirely different purposes.

Kevin Rowe is Senior Curator of Mammals at Museum Victoria. His research focuses on the mechanisms underlying the evolutionary diversification of mammalian species,

Karen Rowe is a Research Associate at Museum Victoria. Her research focuses on the evolution of mate choice and colouration in birds and the use of historical specimen records to understand biological responses to global change.

Iridescent colour production in hairs of blind golden moles (Chrysochloridae) is written by Holly K. Snyder, Rafael Maia, Liliana D’Alba, Allison J. Shultz, Karen M. C. Rowe, Kevin C. Rowe and Matthew D. Shawkey, and is published in Biology Letters.

For further information, or to arrange an interview please contact:
Lynnette Foo on (03) 8341 7726, 0403 296 647 or lfoo@museum.vic.gov.au

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