Moles of many colours

by Kate C
Publish date
25 January 2012
Comments (2)

Golden moles are burrowing mammals native to southern Africa that are completely blind. Yet, their fur produces "a rainbow of colours when viewed from various angles, much like the surface of a compact disc," according to Dr Kevin Rowe, Senior Curator of Mammals. This raises the question: why would an animal that lives in the dark, and can't see anyway, be brightly coloured? Kevin and his colleagues, including MV Research Associate Dr Karen Rowe, have published a new study in Biology Letters that considers the implications of how and why iridescence evolved.

Golden mole specimen from the Museum Victoria collection. Golden mole specimen from the Museum Victoria collection.
Source: Museum Victoria

Many insects, reptiles and birds use iridescence to attract mates, but this depends on keen eyesight on the part of the viewer. Analysis under scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy showed that the golden mole's colourful sheen is produced by the same mechanism as other animals: microscopic surface structures that refract light. The minute layers of scales on the surface of each hair are "most likely to reduce drag and damage while the moles swim through sand and soil," explains Karen. "The colours they produce are merely a by-product."

Four golden mole specimens Hairs from these four golden mole specimens were analysed with scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy in this study.
Source: Museum Victoria

The only other known example of mammal iridescence is the 'eye shine' seen when torchlight reflects from the retina of nocturnal animals, a useful trick for spotting animals in trees. With more investigation, the researchers may find other species with true iridescence and thus piece together the story of its evolution.


Holly K. Snyder, Rafael Maia, Liliana D'Alba, Allison J. Shultz, Karen M. C. Rowe, Kevin C. Rowe and Matthew D. Shawkey (2012) 'Iridescent colour production in hairs of blind golden moles (Chrysochloridae)' Biology Letters

World's first iridescent mammal discovered

Media release

Comments (2)

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Lucy 27 January, 2012 09:45
Do moles have eyes?
Kate C 27 January, 2012 10:47
Good question, Lucy. Golden moles have vestigial eyes - that is, non-functioning eyes that are covered by skin and fur.
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