Rodent

Researchers Discover How the Naked Mole Rat Can Survive 18 Minutes Without Oxygen

Article Image

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.

Naked mole rat’s nose in a tunnel.

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….

Wild hamsters raised on corn eat their young alive

European hamster
European hamster

European hamsters in France often live in farm fields, where they may not be getting a balanced diet. That could cause problems. In the lab, hamsters fed a corn-based diet ate their young alive.

People who eat a diet dominated by corn can develop a deadly disease: pellagra. Now something similar has emerged in rodents. Wild European hamsters raised in the lab on a diet rich in corn showed odd behaviors. These included eating their babies! Such behaviors did now show up in hamsters that ate mostly wheat.

Pellagra (Peh-LAG-rah) is caused by a shortage of niacin (NY-uh-sin), which is also known as vitamin B3. The disease has four major symptoms: diarrhea, skin rashes, dementia — a type of mental illness characterized by forgetfulness — and death. Mathilde Tissier and her team at the University of Strasbourg in France never expected to see something similar among rodents in their lab.

As a conservation biologist, Tissier studies species that may face some risk of going extinct and how they might be saved. Her team had been working in the lab with European hamsters. This species was once common in France but has been quickly disappearing. There are now only about 1,000 of the animals left in the whole country. These hamsters also may be on the decline throughout the rest of their range in Europe and Asia.

These animals play an important role in local ecosystems by burrowing. That turning over of the soil as they excavate tunnels can promote soil health. But more than that, these hamsters are an umbrella species, Tissier notes. That means that safeguarding them and their habitat should give benefits to many other farmland species that may also be declining.

Most European hamsters still found in France live around corn and wheat fields. A typical corn field is some seven times larger than the home range for a female hamster. That means the animals that live on a farm will eat mostly corn — or whatever other crop is growing in its field. But not all crops provide the same level of nutrition. Tissier and her colleagues were curious about how that might affect the animals. Perhaps, they guessed, the number of pups in a litter size or how quickly a pup grew might differ if their moms ate different farm crops.

Corn fields
Many European…