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Behold: The Beauty of The Naked Mole Rat

8 Mar

Robert Gonzalez of io9 wrote a charming article about naked mole rats, which are awesome little creatures that are basically the Betty White of the underworld.

10 Reasons Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit the Earth


Too long have cockroaches been regarded as the heirs to the planet, in the event of a huge cataclysm that drives humans to extinction. Today, we present for your consideration an alternative: the naked mole rat.

The naked mole rat (or NMR, as we like to call it) is an unusual species. It’s a poorly understood species. And it is also a downright unsightly species — to the point that it is almost cute in its unattractiveness. But make no mistake: naked mole rats are extraordinary animals, and these little saber-toothed-sausages are in it for the long haul.

10. Naked mole rats are the ideal underground organism
Let’s start with the basics, shall we? You may have noticed that many of the locations on our list of places to ride out the apocalypse are tunnels, bunkers, and subterranean vaults. Notice a pattern?

Come the end of the world, the safest place will likely be underground. Thanks to a variety of physiological neurological adaptations (which you’ll learn more about below), the naked mole rat has evolved to be one very successful subterranean creature, and, by extension, one of the most ideal post-apocalyptic organisms imaginable.

9. Naked mole rats are masterful bomb-shelter builders
Case in point: naked mole rats know how to build a good bunker. In fact, these rodents travel exclusively below ground. Individual NMR colonies can range in size anywhere from 20 to 300 individuals, but these populations thrive in vast, intricately organized burrow systems that can cover an area equivalent to twenty football fields. There are specialized subterranean chambers specifically dedicated to rearing offspring, storing food, and eliminating bodily waste — there are even major “highway systems” — complete with on-ramps and off-ramps — that allow for more than one animal to travel quickly over vast underground distances.

8. Naked mole rats can run backwards as fast as they do forwards
This might sound like little more than a neat trick, but it’s actually a very practical skill — imagine being able to retreat from a threat while still being able to defend yourself. Naked mole rats can do that. And here’s what’s really cool: this enviable skill is made possible by rows of sensory hairs along their bodies and tails that allow them to “see” while back-pedaling; and said sensory hairs belie another advantageous adaptation:

7. Naked mole rats are “extreme sensory specialists”
That’s what researchers Kenneth Catania and Michael S. Remple call the hairless little rodents in this 2002 PNAS paper, which examines the rodents’ extraordinary brain organization. Their findings suggest that over the course of their evolution, the brains of naked mole rats have been completely overhauled in a way that makes them perfectly suited for subterranean life. For example, note the researchers, the somatosensory cortex in a naked mole rat encompasses virtually the entire region of the brain that is usually devoted to vision. This allows the NMR to dedicate more brain power to a variety of other perceptive abilities. This nightmarish depiction (also borrowed from the researchers’ paper), reflects the percentage of the cortex devoted to a variety of different sensory organs. Good luck finding the eyes.

6. A naked mole rat’s teeth function like a biological swiss army knife
The first thing you’ll probably notice about the image above is that almost a third of the rodent’s somatosensory brain power is devoted to its incisors. As we mentioned earlier, naked mole rats are impressive diggers, but to devote a third of your somatosensory system to digging — and digging only — would be an immense waste of cognitive power. Fortunately, these incisors do more than excavate tunnels. Slow-motion analysis has revealed that mole rats can actually move their lower pair of incisors independently of one another (not unlike a pair of chopsticks). This allows NMRs to interact with one another in a social context, carry and manipulate food and other objects, move and care for their young, and — obviously — feed.10 Reasons Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit the Earth

5. Naked Mole Rats are eusocial
The naked mole rat is one of only two known eusocial mammals on Earth (the other, incidentally, is another species of mole rat); in other words: naked mole rats live in colonies, like ants. Each colony is presided over by a single queen who breeds with a few select males. Eusocial creatures are notoriously gifted at operating as a functional unit that is greater than the sum of its parts, foraging for resources, and looking after their own — three great qualities for a species striving to survive in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

4. Naked mole rats know how to use tools
The naked mole rat’s teeth may be ideal for digging, but all that rooting around is bound to stir up some unpleasant, breathable particles. To help keep their respiratory systems clear, NMR’s have actually been observed placing wood chips or tuber husks behind their incisors and in front of their lips. Researchers hypothesize that this makeshift face mask helps prevent choking, or the inhalation of foreign material. The NMR’s purposeful use of the wood chip during activities that stir fine particulate debris demonstrates its capacity for tool use — a true testament to the species’ intelligence and adaptability.

3. Naked mole rats laugh in the face of cancer
Cancer has never been observed in a naked mole rat, a fact that researchers think may have something to do with a tumor suppressor gene that codes for a protein named p16Ink4a. The p16 protein, like p27 in humans, works by keeping groups of cells (like pre-cancerous growths) in check, and prevents them from proliferating. The difference is that while humans rely predominantly on p27, naked mole rats rely on both. Cell biologist Vera Gorbunova, who identified p16’s function in NMRs, described it as “an additional checkpoint” in the body’s defense against cancer, which sounds like it would be a pretty handy biological asset in a (potentially nuclear-induced) post-apocalyptic scenario. [Picture by Ron Austing]

2. Naked mole rats are the longest-living rodents on Earth
Naked mole rats have been known to live as long as 28 years — decades longer than is typical of other rodents. The key to NMR-longevity has puzzled scientists for years, but one hypothesis states that it has to do with their ability to shut down their already slow metabolisms when the going gets tough — during times of low food availability, or (who knows?) the aftermath of a massive impact event. Researcher Stan Braude, who studies NMRs at Washington University,describes this adaptation particularly well:

“[One way] to think of it is, their gross life span might be 28 years, but their metabolism is going in these short bursts, so maybe the net damage is only 3 or 4 years of net use… They’re living their life in pulses.”

1. The skin of a naked mole rat cannot detect pain — even from an acid burn
Naked mole rats lack a neurotransmitter called substance P that in every other mammal helps relay pain signals from the skin to the central nervous system. They also have mutations in a gene that codes for a protein responsible forregulating their ability to sense the pain of an acid burn. Scientists think that NMRs have evolved these mechanisms of pain tolerance to withstand the highly acidic environments of their underground habitats — but the ability to carry on in the face of pain could prove an invaluable asset when the rest of the world is busy falling to pieces.

Click here to check out the original article. Top image via The Fallout Wiki and DeviantART/justicetoall; eusocial mole rats via; pain-free NMR via; all other image sources cited in-post