A rat that may hold the cure for cancer AND has a monarchy; it can only be the naked mole rat.
When the idea of this blog came about to explore the peculiar creatures and behaviours of the animal kingdom, one particular species came to mind instantly; the naked mole rat. If you’ve never heard about these odd but incredible East African rodents prepare to have your mind blown!
Now let’s address the obvious; these creatures are not pretty things. With their wrinkly, hairless skin and large, jutting-out teeth, the naked mole rat is unlikely to be winning beauty contests any time soon. However over the last year I have learnt some fascinating things about these small creatures that I think make these critters some of the coolest around.
“Could mole rats hold the key to a cure for cancer? Scientists hail ‘potentially life-changing’ breakthrough” Daily Mail
“Naked mole-rat gives cancer clues” BBC News
“A cure for ALL cancers is on the way as scientists make major breakthrough” Daily Express
These are just some of the headlines from the media over the last six months regarding the naked mole rat. So is it true? Have we finally found the secret to the long awaited cure for cancer? Are all the #nomakeupselfies that have been gracing our Facebook feeds for the last week for nothing?
Well not quite. It has long been known that the naked mole rat can live for up to 30 years, an extremely long time compared to other rodents of the same size. In fact if humans were to live as long as naked mole rats determined by our body size, we would live for an impressive 600 years! One of the many reasons for the longevity of these rats lies in their immunity to cancer.
Last year the University of Rochester explored the solutions the naked mole rat uses to overcome this widespread killer. The team of scientists found a substance that appears in the cells of all animals (including us) called hyaluronan, that was different from any hyaluronan seen before. When the team removed this from the cells of naked mole rats, they found that these individuals then became susceptible to cancer, suggesting hyaluronan is the key to overcoming cancer. Well, key to overcoming cancer in naked mole rats at least.
So hyaluronan was the culprit for all the rumours and headlines, and actually led to these creatures being named Science magazine’s Vertebrate of the Year 2013. But will this new found understanding of hyaluronan help us find the elusive cure we have tried so hard to find? Only time will tell.
One of the coolest things I think naked mole rats show us is the amazing things we can achieve when we all work together as one big, harmonious, happy family.
The naked mole rat is the only mammal in the animal kingdom that demonstrates a behaviour known as eusociality (when individuals all work together as a unit to achieve day-to-day tasks). However this behaviour is common in insects and an example that you’ll probably be most familiar with is in bees. In bee colonies there is a queen bee that rules over all the other bees, and the same system occurs in naked mole rat colonies. There is one female queen that is in charge of a colony of up to 100 individuals. The queen selects a few males that she will breed with and the rest of the colony are either assigned roles as workers, who dig for roots and tubers to feed the colony and maintain the complex network of tunnels in which the colony lives, or as soldiers, who protect the colony against snake predators that occasionally slither into these tunnels.
Although this social structure may seem odd, this kind of organisation allows eusocial creatures to be extremely efficient and the results of this efficiency can often be impressive. Below is a video where a team have poured concrete into eusocial ant tunnels and then dug down into the ground around the set concrete to reveal something that can only be described as incredible!
I have watched this video many times over the years and it never fails to amaze me. I guess the equivalent of us creating this kind of remarkable structure is when the Egyptians created the pyramids, not something us humans can pull off often!
Naked mole rats also dig complex tunnels in a manner similar to the ants in the video, and in a year, typically a colony will build a network of tunnels approximately 3km in length. To put that in perspective, 3km is the distance of my walk home from university which takes me 40 minutes to do. Imagine a 40 minute walk in tunnel form. Pretty impressive huh?
So there we have it, my low down on these wonderful creatures, proving that there are more important things in life than looks.
Let me know below what you think of these creatures. Have I managed to convince you of their wonder?