The naked mole rat is easy to identify by its buck teeth and wrinkly skin that might remind you of a Chinese Pug dog. The protruding teeth are used for digging and, believe it or not, its lip seal behind the teeth to keep them from eating dirt while burrowing! These little guys have tiny eyes and poor eyesight. With his short, thin legs, this rat can actually move forward and backward with the same amount of ease. While they're not totally bald, they do have very little hair or fur and lack the layer of fat beneath the skin's surface that typically acts as an animal's insulation. These critters are small, typically ranging from 8 to 10 cm in length (3-4 inches) and weigh only 30-35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 ounces). Females are typically larger. They are native to the grasslands of East Africa and live in colonies of anywhere from 20 to 3000 individuals. They are not endangered. But these are not the weirdest facts about these animals.
These rodents are herbivores and feed on large tubers. One tuber can feed a colony for months or years. How can that be? It's simple. They eat the interior of the tuber but leave enough of it for the plant to regenerate itself. The naked mole rat is a cold-blooded animal. When they get too warm, they dig, or burrow, farther down under the earth. While human "brain cells start to die within 60 seconds without oxygen" the naked mole rat can survive 18 minutes in an oxygen-free environment without suffering any harm. When they don't hair oxygen to breathe, their metabolism slows down "and it uses anaerobic glycolysis of fructose to make lactic acid to supply its cells with energy." A human would die of carbon dioxide poisoning in an atmosphere of 80 percent carbon dioxide and only 20 percent oxygen, but the mole can get along just fine.
Bees, ants, and mole rats have something in common...they're considered eusocial animals. That means they live in colonies with overlapping generations, share cooperative care of the young, and divide up the work duties. Naked mole rats have a caste system like those found in insect colonies. A colony has one female rat, one to three males, and the rest are sterile workers. The hormones and ovaries of the female workers are suppressed but can become active in one of them should the female queen die and need to be replaced. Still, these aren't the weirdest of the facts about naked mole rats. I've saved them for last.
They don't die of old age. If you compare an old naked mole rat with a young one, they are indistinguishable, biologically-speaking. These rodents can live up to 32 years of age. Both the human and these particular rats have DNA repair pathways that are not present in your garden-variety mice. But they are not immortal. These critters die from predators and from illness. Some researchers are looking into the longevity of the naked mole rat in hopes of unraveling the mystery of the aging process.
So while naked mole rats can catch diseases and die, it is interesting to note that these rodents are highly resistant to tumors. They are, however, not immune. Scientists are looking at the various mechanisms that may lead to the rat's remarkable resistance to cancer. "The naked mole rat expresses the p16 gene that prevents cells from dividing once they come in contact with other cells, the rats contain "extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronan" (HMW-HA) which may protect them, and their cells have ribosomes capable of making nearly error-free proteins. The only malignancies discovered in naked mole rats were in captive-born individuals, which lived in a much more oxygenated environment than rats in the wild." Could it be that these, hmmm, odd-looking little rodents might give human scientists a real lead on finding a cure for cancer? Maybe. Stay tuned....
And, finally, the naked mole rat doesn't itch and they don't feel pain. Scientists say that their skin lacks the neurotransmitter, "substance P" that send pain signals to the brain. This is believed to be the result of living in poorly ventilated spaces where there are high levels of carbon dioxide cause acid to build up in their tissues.
I couldn't have made this guy up if I tried! He's too incredible. Although while the naked mole rat isn't the prettiest, the fuzziest, or the smartest of all the creatures, he certainly is one of the oddest. And he may well prove very valuable to the human species.
Until tomorrow, I wish you