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The Verge Review of Animals: the naked mole rat

Covered in poop and feeling no pain

Trisha M Shears

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

Imagine a tiny pink walrus — no more than a foot long — that lives underground in an insect-style community that's ruled by a queen. These animals, which have memorably been described as "wrinkled fingers with teeth," originate in East Africa. They're called naked mole rats, though I should tell you they're neither moles nor rats.

The naked mole rats aren't totally naked, either. They have about a hundred hairs on their body, meant to help them with digging and navigating their tunnel system. They live their entire lives underground; if it gets cold, they form a huddle and heat each other. Each colony has a minimum of 20 individuals, though some colonies have as many as 300, and their territory may stretch for half a mile. These colonies, which usually have about 75 members, are unusually foul. They're low in oxygen, smelly, and often crowded. The naked mole rats must dig their communes themselves, with their teeth. (They have no lips, by the way; their teeth just... are out there.)

Part of that is the social structure; the naked mole rat society has more in common with an ant or bee colony than with, say, a town. As with insects, naked mole rats have a queen, who is the mother of the entire colony. She's the only female who breeds; a few males are kept aside for breeding purposes as well. Females fight for the honor of being queen, and the winner stretches her spine, creating more room between her vertebrae, so she's longer and ready to give birth. She's physically larger than all other comers, which is helpful in maintaining her status. It's like when you wear a pair of three-inch heels so you can tower over someone you're negotiating with, only more so.

Higher status mole rats literally climb over those who aren't as important The rest of the colony? Worker mole rats are charged with creating the tunnel system and its chambers meant for breeding, eating, and — yes — defecating. (That's right, naked mole rats have bathrooms. More on that in a minute.) Some naked mole rats are tasked with cleaning the tunnels; others are soldiers, meant to help defend the colony. Status is pretty clear; the higher-ups literally crawl over other mole rats. Low-status naked mole rats crawl under other members of the colony. Somewhere, a Wall Street investment banker is reading this and getting ideas.

Before we move on, it's time to talk about defecation. There's no nice way to say this: naked mole rats eat their poop. That's because they also eat tubers — their main food source — which can be difficult to digest on the first pass. So once they've pooped out their food, they just... ingest it again. Also, since the naked mole rats are nearly blind, they identify themselves as part of the colony by rolling around in the poop chambers. That way, everyone stinks exactly the same — and colony members can be easily identified.

Naked mole rats don't get cancerHere's what interests researchers the most, though: naked mole rats don't get cancer. Not ever, even though they live 30 years, something like 10 times longer than your average mouse. And the vast majority of mice, 95 percent, die of cancer when allowed to live to old age. In 2011, scientists mapped the naked mole rat genome in hopes of discovering what made the weird mammals impervious to cancer. Once answer may be an unusual version of a sugar called hyaluronan; the mole rat's genes that control how this sugar is made are slightly different than all other mammals.

So yes, it smells like poop and even eats its own; yes, it's blind; yes, the mole rat never sees the sun. Is the naked mole rat mad? It is not mad. It is laughing. Why is it laughing? Well, for most of us, injuries lead to acidification of the surrounding tissue. Not mole rats, though. Acidity means nothing to them. That means they don't experience certain kinds of pain. Oh, also: they can go more than half an hour without any oxygen at all. The adaptations that allow these animals to survive low-oxygen environments are also ones that may be important for treating chronic pain in humans. Chronic pain? What is chronic pain, the naked mole rat wants to know.

Ordinarily, this would be the part of the review where I emote, explaining how naked mole rats are, in fact, avatars of some kind of human experience. They aren't. They're almost entirely other, from their insectoid colony, to their cancer-free existence, to their awesome skills at surviving low-oxygen environments, to their less-pained lifestyle. The naked mole rat has traded its worldly concerns — vanity, seeing the sun, independence, self-expression — for something else. The naked mole rat is beyond us, beyond our concerns. It's covered in poop and feeling no pain. If only we could all be so lucky.

The Naked Mole Rat

Verge Score: 9.0

9.0

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Doesn’t feel some pain

  • Never gets cancer

  • Extraordinarily long-lived

Bad Stuff

  • Covered in poop

  • Blind

  • Really ugly