Naked mole rats aren't moles or rats (they look more like skinny, tiny walruses) and they aren't naked (they have about 100 hairs along their bodies that act as whiskers to help them sense things), but they have become a source of fascination for scientists.
Native to East Africa, these burrowing rodents live a special lifestyle that has forced them to adapt in various ways — and it's those adaptations that could give us insights into our own health and well-being. From pain relief to cancer research to aging, naked mole rats represent a treasure trove of medical possibilities. (Also, they have very odd teeth.)
Here are just a few facts about these unique, some might weird-looking, creatures.
1. Naked moles rats are socially organized. Like termites, ants and some bees, naked mole rats exhibit eusociality. There's a queen, one to three males that she reproduces with and the rest are all workers of some kind, whether it be "soldiers" that protect the nests from snakes and other naked mole rats, foragers who gather food and tunnelers that, well, tunnel. And speaking of tunnels ...
2. Naked mole rats' nests are big and you may not even notice them. Apart from a volcano-like hole that serves as the entrance and exit, you won't see evidence that there are mole rats beneath your feet. If you were able to go underground, where the naked mole rats live out their days, you'd find that their nests can stretch almost 2 miles (3 kilometers), according to Scientific American. These nests are highly organized, with caverns for specific uses, including a burrow used only for feces. When this burrow is full, they closed it up and build a new one.
3. Unlike other mammals, naked mole rats don't get closer to death as they age. A 2018 study published in eLife found that unlike other mammals, naked mole rats' risk of mortality doesn't increase as they age. Humans, in comparison, take the opposite aging approach: their risk of death doubles every year after they turn 30. For the naked mole rat, which reaches sexual maturity at 6 months of age, its risk of death by that point is one in 10,000. The study found that the risk doesn't increase as the animals age; in fact, can even go down a little bit. And considering that some mole rats can live to be 30, that's a big bonus.
4. Stable and powerful proteins help naked mole rats stay healthy. For most organisms, proteins in our bodies are often damaged and then recycled to form new proteins. Those proteins, if they're not discarded, can become toxic to other cells, leading to various aging-related diseases. Naked mole rats are much more efficient at recycling their proteins, when they even need to recycle them, according to this 2009 study, wich found that the naked mole rat's body tags fewer proteins for recycling because few proteins need it. This protein stability may be a clue to their longevity.
5. Naked mole rats may be cancer-free thanks to one gene. Another 2009 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that naked mole rats have a gene, "p16," that prevents cells from reproducing when they get too bunched up together. Cancer, which is caused by aggressive cell growth, can't develop due to this sort of fail-safe gene. Given their long lifespans, and that longer lifespans can often mean more cell growth, it's a good survival tactic that could help humans combat cancer.
6. Naked mole rats don't feel any pain from acid. Given that they spend a bunch of time in cramped tunnels where acid levels build up thanks to exhaled carbon dioxide, naked mole rats must survive in what we would consider dire conditions. Researchers expected to find that naked mole rats' neurons would be missing acid receptors, but that wasn't the case. What they found instead — and detailed in a 2011 study published in Science — was that a sodium channel in neurons that would normally send pain signals to the brain becomes blocked when acid molecules bind with a pain sensory receptor. So blocking this pain receptor could lead to new painkillers.
7. Who needs oxygen? Not naked mole rats. Low-oxygen environments are deadly for most organisms that need it to breathe. Their brains and other systems shut down within minutes without oxygen. Naked mole rats can survive for 18 minutes without oxygen and for five hours in low-oxygen environments by basically becoming like plants. When there's limited oxygen, their system pumps fructose into their bloodstreams and onto the brain, and presto, livability. Without this ability, surviving in burrows where oxygen is at a premium would be very difficult.
8. The teeth of naked mole rats are vital to their survival ... and they're a little weird, too. Naked mole rats feast on tubers and roots, so naturally they need some strong chompers. According to the San Diego Zoo, those two front teeth continue to grow, but are kept at a reasonable length thanks to these tough tubers. The teeth are also used for tunneling, but no soil gets into their mouths because their lips are sealed behind their teeth. Oh, and those big teeth? The mole rats can move each tooth individually, like chopsticks, to grasp things.