Down in Jungleland: Look no further

What naked mole rats lack in looks, they more than make up for it in many other vital departments.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published:August 14, 2016 1:30 am
So this ugly little creature has two life secrets, which scientists have been trying their damnedest to crack. So this ugly little creature has two life secrets, which scientists have been trying their damnedest to crack.

I’ve often waxed eloquent about beauty in nature — how we all recognise something “beautiful” when we see it (even if it’s only in the eye of the beholder) and whether other creatures recognise it in each other and across species. One thing is certain: if we had to save one of the two creatures, one of which was “beautiful” and the other not so, we know which one would be the chosen one.

And if the “ugly” one in this case were the naked mole rat, we’d have probably made a dreadful mistake. The naked mole rat is a tiny rodent that is found in East Africa — Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia (if it had been found in India, it would have been exterminated with a shudder a long time back). It’s one of the ugliest creatures on earth, yes, naked, its skin dirty, wrinkled pink or yellowish, about 10 cm long, with tiny beady eyes, vestiges of ears and two great curved front teeth (an orthodontist’s dream come true) and lips which are sealed just behind them to prevent soil from getting into the mouth (A relative, the blind mole rat has a tissue of skin over its eyes, which makes it look truly nightmarish). Mercifully, it lives in large burrows underground, chiseling tubers with those great teeth and rarely surfaces. Its legs are skinny, it can barely see, and, frankly, it looks like some terrible genetic or radiation experiment gone wrong.

But what naked mole rats lack in the looks department, they more than make up for in many other vital departments. Thank god, scientists and biologists seem to abide by the old saying, “beauty is skin deep” and began studying them. (The German naturalist who first “discovered” the species assumed they were diseased). For a start, naked mole rats are “eusocial”, which is to say they live under regimes similar to that of ants and termites. A queen reigns over the burrow and is the only one that bears young, and has, perhaps, two or three male consorts. She is rather larger and heavier than the rest, which helps when you have to throw your weight around, weighing in at a mighty 80 gm as against 35 gm for the hoi polloi. The workers, numbering say around 80, look after her and the maintenance of the burrow and khana peena and the babies. Naked mole rats are like reptiles, unable to internally maintain their body temperature and must huddle together when cold to conserve heat. Their wrinkled, tissue-paper-like skin lacks insulation. Still doesn’t look very good for them, does it? But here’s the list of their USPs and watch them blow you away!

Most rodents have a high-speed metabolic rate and live frenetically, perhaps, for three years. Naked mole rats have a much lower metabolic rate (it’s always good to be laid-back) and, in the lab, have lived for up to 31 years. They are accustomed to very low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels (which we may soon have to get used to too), equipped with very efficient lungs and blood that has a great affinity to oxygen. They do not feel pain — they lack a key neurotransmitter which sends pain signals to the brain. They won’t feel a thing if you pour acid on them (but, I presume, it would burn them nevertheless) and it is thought that this is because the high carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere underground causes acid to build up in their tissues, which they can tolerate. And now, to the biggie: they don’t get cancer, or more precisely, get it very rarely.

So this ugly little creature has two life secrets, which scientists have been trying their damnedest to crack. The first is their longevity, the second, of course, the resistance to cancer. One of the culprits in the ageing process is supposed to be rogue atoms called “free radicals”, which cause tissue damage as they go about hijacking electrons from vital tissue cells and, over time, causes us to age. This “oxidative damage” from free radicals is huge in naked mole rats, yet, they live on and on. They are also blessed with a collection of strange (wonder?) proteins which somehow tone other proteins and keep them in fine fettle, thus, probably helping in overall health and well-being.

As for cancer prevention, apparently, they have two different genes, which combine to ensure berserk cell division (the hallmark of cancer) does not take place. New discoveries are being made: a natural sugary substance, whose molecular mass is five times larger in naked mole rats than in other creatures, which may in some way also be responsible; and ribosomes (protein-making “machines”) that produce extremely error-free proteins. It does seem that the naked mole rat does hold some of the secrets of anti-ageing and cancer-prevention (and cure), and while it did not win any beauty contest (but did figure in a list of the “world’s ugliest creatures”), it was named “the vertebrate of the year for 2013” by Science magazine.

So, before you squash or stomp some hideous, revolting bug or creepy-crawly, just hold that big foot. Because, with nature, you never know. That bug, if studied and analysed and synthesised, may, after all, hold the elixir of eternal youth and life, and you wouldn’t want to stomp that out of existence, would you? Looks are skin deep and tell you nothing about what a living entity is all about. Because often that’s where the real beauty lies — deep within.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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