African ice rats

In the May 4-10 2013 NewScientist, a piece on the “Rat with two faces””, beginning:

Beneath the snow of South Africa’s Drakensberg and Maluti mountains, African ice rats huddle together in burrows for warmth. When they reach the surface, though, it’s a different story.

African ice rats is a wonderful nominal, surprising in its semantics — both African ice and ice rats have some surprise value — and pleasing in its phonology (a double dactyl cut short).

The rest of the story:

Neville Pillay from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his colleagues monitored 10 colonies of wild ice rats (Otomys sloggetti) for four years.

In all that time, the ice rats interacted above ground just 31 times – and 26 of those encounters were aggressive. In experiments, Pillay’s team found that even ice rats from the same burrow would fight on the surface (Journal of Zoology,

Pillay says food is scarce in the mountains, so the ice rats compete furiously to get enough. They are social when they need to stay warm, but ferocious loners when looking for food. “It works for them,” he says.

So I wrote a little dactylic poem on the subject:

African ice rats are
Highly competitive,
Once on the surface of
African snow.

Back in their burrows they
Cuddle like puppies,
Sharing their warmth in the
Regions below.


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