Science, Nature and Tech

CURIOUS CREATURES 3 – The Naked Mole Rat


The strangest creatures are, to me,

The ones I love the best.

The slimy, ugly and the odd

Are cooler than the rest…


When I began this Curious Creatures series for Jump! Mag, I made a list of animals and insects I wanted to cover. I began with the ones I had some sort of connection with and most were animals close to home that I’d seen or heard, which intrigued and inspired me.
But rather impatiently, I’m now going to go a bit further afield and invite you to join me in the strange and extra-extraordinary world of  “Curiouser and Curiouser”*Creature number 3… 

The Naked Mole Rat is a thing

That really is quite weird.

No-fur, pink skin & almost blind;

It looks like it’s been sheared.


These extraordinary rodents don’t score highly on good looks – they have the appearance of uncooked, wrinkly-skinned sausages with tiny limbs and very large teeth that are situated on the outside of their mouths – and yet the more I see, read and hear about them, the more engaging and ‘beautiful’ they become.

Frankly, if you lived underground in dark, ant-like colonies and had terrible eyesight, you wouldn’t be putting a makeover on the top of your ‘to do’ list, would you?

Naked Mole Rats might not win a conventional beauty pageant, but they’ve got a whole bunch of other curious features and skillsets that are far more connected to their looks than you might at first imagine.

The phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ springs to mind – well how a naked mole rat looks is not only an example of evolution at its most brilliantly efficient but goes far beyond being ‘skin deep’ into a beautiful set of DNA and chemically balanced brilliance.




They can run backwards just as fast as they run forwards – extremely useful for digging underground tunnels and shifting large quantities of soil.

Their ‘loose’ skin enables them to squeeze through even the tiniest of spaces in their digging expeditions.

They use their extraordinary teeth independently like chopsticks, as well as their paws, to dig through vast quantities of earth to construct their tunnels; a colossal 3-4 tons of earth in the few weeks after rain has been recorded!

They live in *eusocial colonies of between 20 – 300 (the most common being around 80) behaving more like ants, termites or bees in their working and reproductive habits.

These curious creatures have become perfectly adapted to their harsh environment underneath the dry grasslands of East Africa. And these adaptations are key to their extraordinary super-powers.



A funny little animal,

This sausage sabre-tooth

Could also hold the secret to

Our own eternal youth…

ETERNAL YOUTH & other super-powers:



NMRs are impervious to pain due to the lack of something called *Substance P, an important element in pain perception. But why is this useful? Basically, with the lower levels of oxygen and higher amounts of carbon dioxide underground, having no Substance P prevents a build-up of toxins in the body.

In other words, the NMR doesn’t need to feel physical pain via its skin but does need protection from dangerous CO2 levels.

They have a much lower *metabolic and *respiratory rate than other small rodents such a mice, which means they adapt extremely well to the low oxygen levels underground.

Because they are able to adjust their metabolisms according to how much oxygen is available – slowing down in difficult times and speeding up when there’s more oxygen – some scientists have described them as “living their lives in pulses” contributing to the fact that…

NMRs live about 10 times as long as their furry rodent counterparts. This ability to regulate their metabolisms also reduces damage from “oxidative stress”; this is the build-up of toxins in the body that is a by-product of anxiety, which in turn is connected to why…

NMRs lose no or very little muscle definition in old age. That’s to say, they defy all visible signs of ageing (even without a fabulous face cream, hey, hang on…)

And strangest of all, despite their longevity, they are the only mammals that do not seem to develop cancer. All the above points must surely contribute to this extraordinary fact, plus the following…


(Almost) B-R-E-A-K-I-N-G N-E-W-S…


The latest research (June 19th 2013) found that NMRs have extremely high levels (5 times as high as humans & mice) of *Hyaluronan or the “goo molecule”, a natural sugary substance that is essential for skin/cell hydration and repair.

This might also suggest that if NMRs are injured – without feeling it, of course – the higher amount of Hyaluronan present would actually help to heal the wound faster. And guess what, this substance is used in face creams, too, so point 8 wasn’t so much of a joke after all…

Crucially, in Naked Mole Rats the high levels of Hyaluronan appear to suppress cancer.

So, let’s join the dots and suggest that almost as a consequence of needing extra-elastic skin perfectly adapted for underground tunneling, these Amazing Animals have gone and got themselves chilled-out, cancer-resistant extra-long lives!

Perhaps the secret of the Naked Mole Rat’s curious beauty is “skin deep” after all…



CURIOUS CREATURE SUPER-POWER: There are many – see list above… most curious and amazing of all is that unlike any other mammal, they have never been known to get cancer and they live to a ripe old age without losing much muscle definition.

SIZE: adults are approx. 8-10cm/3-4ins long, although the queens are larger

HABITAT: dry East Africa, typically countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in an underground maze of tunnels (akin to those of termites or ants) that would stretch up to 3 miles long if unravelled.

LIFESPAN: up to an amazing 31 years

DIET: very large tubers (‘very large’ means weighing as much as a thousand times the weight of an average NMR) mined deep underground in the tunnels.

PREDATORS: not many, but snakes and birds of prey might occasionally pick them off when they emerge out of the tunnels for a bit of fresh air

REPRODUCTION: Like bees, the NMR colonies have one reproductive female who produces around one litter of babies (anything between 3 to an eye-popping 28) a year. Notably, she can reproduce continuously (the *gestation period is approx. 70 days, so that’s every few months) in captivity.




“Curiouser and Curiouser” – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Eusocial – insect society, like ants, characterised by specialisation of tasks and sharing care of young

Metabolic/metabolism – the chemical processes that occur within every living organism in order to maintain life

Respiratory – relating to breathing

Longevity – long life

Substance P – an important element in pain perception

Hyaluronan – the “goo molecule” that helps re-hydrate (keep water in) and add “elastic” to cells, among other things

Gestation – development inside the womb from fertilisation to birth





Gabby Dawnay is a writer, poet and artist. She is a regular contributor to Okido magazine, a fab arts and science magazine for kids. In February 2014, Gabby’s first picture book  called A Possum’s Tail – a collaboration with illustrator Alex Barrow – will be published, followed by a second book about London in July 2014. Both are by Tate Publishing.  As well as writing children’s books and for children’s television, she does both private and commercial art commissions, which you can view on her blog.

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