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HomeEyeNaked mole rats are the super rodents you didn’t know about

Naked mole rats are the super rodents you didn’t know about

Be warned: They have been top contenders for the ‘World’s Ugliest Animal’ award several times. Personally, I find them charmingly charismatic. Naked mole rats (even their name is not flattering) aka sand puppies, are pinkish-grey-brown wrinkly rodents that live in underground burrows in countries abounding the Horn of Africa as also in East Africa, Kenya, for example. They have large heads, tiny rye-seed eyes (can’t see at all well) and crinkly plump sausage-like bodies. They live off tubers that may be a thousand times their own size (talk about biting off more than you can chew!), which they cleverly eat from the inside, leaving the outer portions to continue growing, giving them a continuous food source. Their long curved incisors, two up and two down, stick out of their mouths, giving them a charmingly goofy appearance; you can’t help but smile. And they are totally iconoclastic, and have driven scientists and naturalists dizzy with excitement. These guys are the true super-rodents.

For a start, their lifestyle is more akin to that of bees and wasps and other eusocial insects. They live in underground burrows that may stretch to 5 km, in colonies of around 70 animals. And they are cold-blooded, unable to control their body temperature and are dependent on the prevailing outside temperature. Now, for some of the sixers they have hit – They live, maybe, 10 times as long as ordinary rats, over 40 years; their colonies are ruled by a queen who is the only one that can have babies and the colony is managed by workers, nannies and soldiers – as in any ant or termite colony. Their metabolism works in slow motion, if it gets cold their heart rates can fall to 50 bpm (and make them cluster together for warmth). They are more or less immune to pain, and don’t get cancer and can handle, in fact, need levels of carbon dioxide which would suffocate us. They can survive in an atmosphere containing 80 per cent carbon dioxide and 20 per cent oxygen, and live for at least five hours at oxygen levels as low as five per cent and for 18 minutes in zero oxygen without showing any symptoms, though they do die within 30 minutes. (Very unpleasant experiments must have been done for these findings).

You may think they are all geared up for the rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but no, they can’t quite handle global warming. If they come out of their burrows into fresh air, they get hot, hyperventilate and have seizures and must dive back down. Their tunnels run to varying depths and they live at the depth at which they are the most comfortable. If the tunnels get warm, they go in deeper, if it gets cold, they come up higher.

Of course, it’s genetic twiddling that’s behind these remarkable qualities and scientists are busy figuring out exactly what seems to be going on, especially in relation to their tolerance for high carbon-dioxide levels, extraordinary longevity, resistance to cancer and immunity to pain. The naked mole rats’ low metabolism reduces their oxygen demand and they are able to use fructose (a type of sugar) rather than glucose to meet their energy requirements; fructose can be metabolised, without the use of oxygen. Usually, a high level of carbon dioxide leads to a build-up of acid in the bloodstream (causing dizziness, seizures and such unpleasant symptoms), acidosis, as it is called. The naked mole rat has a wacky genetic mutation which prevents this from happening. It also makes them feel nothing if you prick them with a pin! Their blood, too, has a high affinity to haemoglobin.

There is a substance called hyaluronic acid, which is produced by a gene which helps in giving us immunity, relief from inflammatory pain and prevents diseases – cardiac, neurological – basically by preventing inflammation, which is the starting point of so many health issues. ‘High molecular weight’ hyaluronic acid (HMW-HA) is responsible for this, and scientists discovered that naked mole rats have 10 times the amount of this substance as do normal rats, and ourselves.

To check this out, they conducted ghoulish experiments. They transferred the responsible gene from naked mole rats to ordinary rats, and hey presto, the ordinary rats burst with rude good health, and were probably blessed with long, long lives! Then, of course, they took the gene out of the poor naked mole rat and sat back – and yes, the poor guy became as susceptible to cancer, arthritis and other diseases, as well as ageing as ordinary rats do! It appears that HMW-HA in some way directly regulates the body’s immune system.

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Of course, scientists are now busy trying to see how they can apply this to humans, so we can enjoy long and healthy lives as naked mole rats, and frankly, they ought to be able to achieve this because in so many other ways rats are us! (Which is why they are used so frequently in medical laboratories!) But, and this is pure conjecture, by extrapolation, does this mean that with the equivalent of the naked mole rat’s level of HMW-HA, we could dance till we are 700 years old!

Happily, these sand-puppies are not threatened or endangered. While digging their tunnels their lips get sealed behind their incisors so that they don’t swallow mud while doing so.

Also Read‘We were ready to kill it 10 years ago’: Vijay Varma10 things about Chandigarh that will interest youWhy does the mongoose always beat the snake?The life and loves of Mirza Ghalib, the last great poet of the Mughal era

End of day, they may appear ugly, to some, but hey, the mud seems to be in our eyes!

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