Naked mole rats are seen are arguably some of the oddest-looking and weirdest creatures on the planet. But these pink, buck-toothed mammals may actually be far more valuable to human health than previously thought, despite their homely appearance.
The rodents, which live in the deserts of East Africa, have a peculiar survival method when threatened. When there is not enough oxygen in the naked mole rats’ burrows, they switch to a unique kind of metabolism that makes use of fructose, rather than glucose. They are the only animal recorded to have done this, US News reports.
Using fructose is more of a plant, rather than an animal, strategy, so researchers were surprised to see that it was present in the naked mole rat. They now hope that lessons can be learned from these desert rodents, in order to come up with future treatments for people to prevent catastrophic damage when heart attacks or strokes occur. These are both scenarios where oxygenated blood flow does not reach the brain.
The researchers found that these animals can live for up to 18 minutes without oxygen, and at least five hours in environments with very little oxygen – something that would kill a human being in minutes.
Naked mole rats live in colonies that number as much as 300, including a breeding queen. Closely related to porcupines or moles, these rodents thrive on an insect-like social structure, where every member of the burrow works to gather food or dig tunnels. Since they live in such crowded areas, the naked mole rats often have to live in environments where the oxygen is scarce and carbon dioxide is plentiful.
Thomas Park of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lead author on the study, says, “Naked mole-rats have evolved in an extremely different environment from most other mammals and they have had millions of years to figure out how to survive dramatic oxygen deprivation.”
The study was published in the journal Science.