The African naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is repulsive. It looks like an octogenarian sausage with buck teeth. Mostly found in the horn of Africa, these rodents live in warrens underground, serve a ruling queen, and spend most of their days gathering seeds and edible plants, or digging elaborate tunnels with their protruding front teeth and snouts. They live dozens and sometimes hundreds together and only the queen mates and bears young. In this way, they operate more like ants or bees than mammals.
Turns out these heinous, hairless monstrosities are a scientific marvel in quite a number of ways. For instance, they’re cold-blooded. These mole rats survive much, much longer than any other rodent, around 30 years or so. The naked mole rat doesn’t experience most kinds of pain and might even help us cure cancer. They don’t develop it. When researchers tried to sow cancer within them, they proved resistant.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about them is, they can survive for a long time without oxygen. Now, researchers have found out why. Turns out, they borrow a biochemical process from plants, according to a recent study published in the journal Science. Neuroscientist Thomas Park, a researcher from the University of Illinois-Chicago, told NPR that he and colleagues wanted to know how long the naked mole rat could last without oxygen.
How naked mole rats survive in low oxygen environments has been a mystery, until now. By Bernard DuPont from France [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
First they stuck four mole rats in a chamber which mimicked a low oxygen environment, one that would kill a mouse in about 15 minutes. Subjects became sluggish but were unfazed otherwise. They were in there for five hours without any trouble. This aspect of their physiology is important for their survival, as in the wild, they spend long period in tunnels where very little oxygen can be had….