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‘Ugly’ Animals: Can naked mole rats cure cancer?

on July 15, 2013

There is a mysterious little creature living in Africa and although it is small and lives underground, it might one day have an effect on all human kind; I am talking about the Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber), a truly remarkable subterranean rodent from East Africa. They are such bizarre animals that when they were first observed in the 1850’s, they were believed to be mutants and it took 100 years before they were classified as their own species!

A naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

They may not be the cutest animals around, but they are full of surprises!
Photo Credits.

Naked mole rats are neither moles nor rats (they are rodents though, related to porcupines) but they are indeed naked, not having any fur on their bodies. Unfortunately, many people might consider these critters to be ugly, and although I would hesitate to ever say an animal is ugly, I can certainly understand the reasoning when it comes to these ones. Their hairlessness exposes their wrinkly pink skin, their tiny beady eyes are sunken into their head and they have teeth protruding from the front of their faces. However, they were apparently thought appealing enough to include in Disney’s Kim Possible TV show (where one character, Rufus, keeps one as a pet) and we should remember that however an animal looks, it has evolved that way for a reason and the naked mole rat is no exception.

So, where do naked mole rats live? They spend the entirety of their lives in underground tunnels of their own making, never needing to come to the surface for food or water as they find this by tunnelling to and feeding from roots and tubers. They have a very unusual dental arrangement where their long incisors actually protrude from their face in front of their mouths, allowing them to use these teeth for tunnelling without getting mouthfuls of soil. They barely use their eyes and as such they have shrunken and become almost vestigial. But perhaps one of the most interesting things about naked mole rats is their social structure; they are one of only two species of mammal (the other being the Damaraland Mole Rat (Fukomys damarensis)) that can be described as eusocial. Eusociality is a social organisation that is mostly used by insects such as ants and bees, wherein a queen is the only reproductive female, producing young that will grow into workers that dig tunnels and provide food for the colony. Eusociality in mammals is extremely rare and so too is another feature of this species; unlike most other mammals, naked mole rats cannot regulate their body temperature, they are thermoconforming, meaning that they adopt the temperature of their immediate environment.

So we can see that these animals are very bizarre, but thankfully, scientists and researchers are able to see past the looks of the naked mole rat in order to do some serious studies. Laboratories and zoos and other collections of naked mole rats have been producing a great amount of fascinating information. One of the most startling and striking headlines that has come out of research on this species is that naked mole rats may help cure cancer; of course, any opportunity for humans to find an end to the terrible affliction of cancer is well worth pursuing. Research has shown that naked mole rats simply do not get cancer and this, among other physiological features, make them fascinating.

Scientists have recently published findings that seem to explain that these rodents produce molecules in their tissues that prevent tumours from developing and spreading; the mission for cancer research now is to find a way to translate this ability for human use, first starting with mice as a stepping stone. It’s also interesting that naked mole rats actually live for a very long time in general (compared to other rodents), one London based scientist is still in possession of individuals from a collection he worked with 30 years ago! It also seems that they do not feel pain on the outside of their bodies, unfortunately this was discovered by applying acid to their skin. This longevity and pain resistance is also of immense interest to researchers who hope that some of their physiological traits could be applied to the human body somehow.

A baby naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) digging into the Earth with its teeth.

A tiny baby naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) uses its teeth to dig; it might live in its underground home for over 30 years!
Photo Credit.

It is a shame that naked mole rats are perceived as being so ugly; they are magnificently interesting creatures with many bizarre and unique characteristics. In the future, it might be thanks to these little rodents that humans live longer and healthier lives so let’s look past the superficial and embrace our hairless friends!

Much love,



If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Research category.
Other Research entries:
Nonverbal communication between humans and animals
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari

4 responses to “‘Ugly’ Animals: Can naked mole rats cure cancer?

  1. Very interesting …. I enjoyed learning something new! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very very interesting. I knew little about the mole rat until now 🙂 Always love your articles Nick, they are wonderful to read.

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