Let’s Talk About: Naked Mole Rats

(cc) Tim Evanson, cropped

Right off the top, here’s the deal with naked mole rats- they’re gross.  I know that the Disney channel has made you love ’em, and Rufus is the best, and Kim Possible was awesome, and blah blah blah early 2000s nostalgia (cause bullshit nostalgia’s a thing).  But seriously, they’re gross.  Fortunately, being gross doesn’t mean that they are not super interesting and pretty damn cool.  So today, let’s talk about naked mole rats!

First off, here’s the facts. They look like an old man’s dick. Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) come from East Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya), and live in underground burrows, below the hot desert floor.  Because they live in such hot, dry areas, they’ve evolved to become mostly hairless.  Naked mole rats actually aren’t completely “naked”, as they have about 100 hairs along their body, that they use as whiskers, when running through they’re tunnels.  They’re also mostly blind, so rely on these hairs and their ears to get around in their tunnels.  Finally, they can live for about 30 years, which is pretty damn good for a rodent species, and are the only cold-blooded mammal species out there.

One of the more interesting facts about naked mole rats, is that they live in colonies similar to ants, termites, and bees.  Naked mole rat colonies are “ruled over” by a single reproductive queen.  (The queen is actually the largest member of the colony, as she increases the length of the spaces between her vertebrae, after winning the fight for queendom).  Because of this, they are actually considered a eusocial species, but function differently than typical eusocial species.  Instead of helping each other because they share about 75% of their genes thanks to sterility, haploid males, and one single mother (like eusociality in the aforementioned insects), they help eachother because of intense inbreeding and their harsh environment.  As an aside, naked mole rats are one of only two mammal species that are eusocial- the other species being another type of mole rat.

The two most incredible facts about them, however, come relatively new research.  Firstly, naked mole rats don’t get cancer.  After keeping these naked abominations in labs, researchers started to learn that unlike mice, naked mole rats don’t get cancer- like, at all.  This was then found out to be due to the build up of hyaluronic acid- a sugar produced in all vertebrates that helps give stability and structure around cells.  In most mammals, this sugar is quickly broken down before it starts to build up in excess.  In naked mole rats, thanks to a weird cocktail of enzymes, this sugar isn’t broken down as readily, and actually builds up around cells, causing cells to stop dividing.  Since cancer is all about the uncontrolled division of cells, this sugar is believed to be the cause of this cancer free ability.

Second, and finally, naked mole rats don’t really need oxygen.  Living in such tight quarters underground, naked mole rats have previously been found to be able to draw oxygen out of very thin air, allowing them to survive in tunnels filled with more CO2 than O2.  More recently, however, researchers found that naked mole rats can survive, for 18 months, without any oxygen at all!  This is because when they’re deprived of all oxygen, they’re bodies shut down into a coma-like state, and their body’s metabolism switches from a glucose based process to a fructose based process.  This is important, because in metabolism powered by fructose, no oxygen is needed, whereas in glucose powered metabolism, oxygen is necessary.  They pretty much turn into plants- awesome, absolutely ugly, plants.

That’s all I have to say, though, about naked mole rats today.  For more information, like how they can chew through concrete and that ~25% of their muscle mass is in their jaws, check out the links below!

http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/naked-mole-rat

http://www.torontozoo.com/ExploretheZoo/AnimalDetails.asp?pg=622

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/n/naked-mole-rat/