Naked Mole Rats Look Ugly - But They're So Crucial To The World For A Very Surprising Reason

The naked male rat is possibly the most important animal you've never thought about before. It's also possibly the ugliest. This wrinkly rodent lives nearly its entire life underground in its native Africa, and there are plenty of amazing things the naked mole rat does other than look like a semi-deflated balloon. 

Naked mole rats feel no pain, although that is not the only reason they play a vital part in today's medical research. Naked mole rats and cancer are mutually exclusive; these rodents don't get cancer, and they have plenty of other superpowers as well. Luckily, these bizarre but important creatures are not endangered, as they live in areas without much human activity. 

These facts about the naked mole rat will teach you more than Kim Possible ever did. Read on and learn why naked mole rats are important and more than just literal freaks of nature. 

  • Their Skin Makes Them Immune To Cancer

    Their Skin Makes Them Immune To Cancer
    Photo: Ltshears / flickr / Public Domain

    If you had a pet hamster or mouse growing up, how long did it live? It most likely lived a handful of years, if even. Well, the naked mole rat - who is the same size - lives for about 30 years. And until recently, scientists had no idea why.

    Though it was suspected they were able to live so long because they don't get cancer, no one understood why the wrinkly fellows weren't susceptible to the disease. It turns out the chemical that makes them look like a wrinkly sausage is also the one that keeps them cancer-free.

    Hyaluronic acid, a type of sugar, affects the naked mole rat's skin. All mammals produce hyaluronic acid, but naked mole rats produce bigger sugars. Bigger sugars makes their skin looser, and it also prevents the cells from growing tumors. 

  • Naked Mole Rats Can Survive 18 Minutes Without Oxygen

    Naked Mole Rats Can Survive 18 Minutes Without Oxygen
    Photo: Ltshears / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The naked mole rat is able to survive without oxygen for about 18 minutes, which scientists think is a possible coping mechanism to their underground lifestyle. For comparison, mice die without oxygen in about a minute. 

    Here's a brief science lesson:  Energy comes from glucose, and glucose is converted to energy via oxygen. But when the naked mole rat needs to, it can use fructose - not glucose. Breaking down fructose doesn't require oxygen, so they're able to enter a coma-like state when necessary. Prior to this discovery, scientists thought only plants converted fructose, but these underground super-creatures can do it, too. 

  • These Freaks Of Nature Can Barely Feel Pain

    These Freaks Of Nature Can Barely Feel Pain
    Photo: Trisha M Shears / flickr / Public Domain

    Naked mole rats are much less sensitive to pain than other animals. Researchers in Berlin used the effects of acid to figure out what was going on. In most animals - including humans - acid would stimulate the sensory neurons and tell the brain the body is in pain. This is not the case with naked mole rats. Naked mole rats have a small tweak in their TrkA receptors that the rest of us don't. TrkA receptors are what nerve growth factor (NGF) molecules bind to in order to tell us we are in pain. 

    "They live in desert regions underground, and they have to do a lot of work to get their food," researcher Gary R. Lewin told Science Daily. "They have the lowest metabolic rate of any mammal. Evolution has shut down everything that is not absolutely necessary - including extra nerve receptors."

    Scientists are using this genetic mutation and trying to replicate it in humans. If mastered, this gene therapy could lead to a dramatic and welcomed change for people who experience chronic pain, such as those who suffer from arthritis. 

  • Their DNA Can Repair Itself

    Their DNA Can Repair Itself
    Photo: Ltshears / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Scientists believe that part of why the naked mole rat lives so long is because it doesn't get cancer. But their long lives aren't solely attributed to their cancer-fighting cells. For every other mammal, the older it gets, the more likely it is to die. The naked mole rat doesn't roll like that, though. Their chances of dying never surpass one in 10,000. 

    So why don't their chances of dying increase? It's probably due to the fact naked mole rats' DNA repairs itself. Scientists looked at liver damage in humans, naked mole rats, and mice, and found that humans and naked mole rats both have "unregulated DNA repair pathways." These pathways allow the body to repair major organs in ways animals with shorter lifespans (like mice) cannot. 

    They also don't age physically, though it's unclear how an already wrinkly creature can possibly look any older. 

  • Naked Mole Rats Have A Social Hierarchy Like Bees Do

    Naked Mole Rats Have A Social Hierarchy Like Bees Do
    Photo: Edward Russell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Naked mole rats (and one of their other mole rat brethren) are the only mammals who are eusocial, which means they have social hierarchies like bees and ants. 

    Their underground colonies can be as big as six football fields, and they are highly organized with rooms and tunnels. There are dedicated spaces for the queen and her young, for food storage, and even for using the bathroom. And the toilet chamber is of particular importance - not only do these creatures eat their feces, but they also roll around in it to help identify members of their colony.

    Other than the queen, the other mole rats are workers or soldiers. Workers are responsible for getting food, taking care of the newborn pups, and maintaining the tunnels. Soldiers defend the colony, and though they're small, they sound kind of terrifying - they stack on top of each other to display their long teeth. Sounds like a good way to dissuade predators. 

    Scientists think the mole rats evolved into a eusocial hierarchy to survive living in the desert where food and water can be scarce and temperatures can fluctuate wildly. When all the members of the colony work for the good of the group, they are able to survive more successfully. 

  • The Queen Naked Mole Rat Bites And Bullies Members Of Her Colony

    The Queen Naked Mole Rat Bites And Bullies Members Of Her Colony
    Photo: Justin / flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Much like bees, naked mole rats have a queen whose only job is to give birth and propagate the colony. Unlike bees, however, the naked mole rat queen is kind of terrifying. There is no royal mole rat family; a female will fight other mole rats to become queen - and yes, they'll kill each other if need be. 

    After she becomes queen and assumes her baby-making duties, the female can stretch out the vertebrae to get longer. This queen will then have up to 27 pups at a time, four or five times a year. 

    However, like royalty, the queen doesn't have to take care of all of her pups. After they're born, workers clean the pups and take it to the nursery, a dedicated room in the colony for the queen to nurse the babies. 

    Because another female could try to steal the throne at any given moment, the queen likes to remind everyone who's boss. While she's inspecting the underground colony, she will bite and push others to establish dominance. If the queen gets weaker, another female will start to ovulate (in the naked mole rat colony, only the queen ovulates and only a few males breed). And when she starts to ovulate, it's possible she will fight the queen. She may have a real coup, where she gets a breeding male on her side to help her kill the queen.