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In Defense Of Naked Mole Rats And What We Can Learn From Them

Picture a pinkish, hairless, wrinkly rodent about the size of a small sweet potato. Researchers are studying naked mole rats to figure out what they can learn about longevity and health.

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Transcript:

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK. Naked mole rats are these blind rodents that live underground in East Africa. And over time, they've developed some special traits that help them thrive in tough spaces. NPR's Pien Huang makes the case for why they deserve some respect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh. Ew.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Oh and ew. As I was hanging out at the Smithsonian National Zoo's naked mole rat exhibit in Washington, D.C., I heard a lot of those two reactions. First, the ew.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD SCREAMING)

HUANG: Kenton Kerns is the assistant curator for small mammals. He says some visitors can't deal with naked mole rats. They run right past them.

KENTON KERNS: I always feel like, no, come back. Let us tell you what you're running away from. But I get it. It's like - it's deep. When you see a naked mole rat, for some people, it's like a - it hits you really deep that that's not something I want to look at anymore (laughter).

HUANG: Naked mole rats are pink rodents about the size of small sweet potatoes. They're mostly hairless and wrinkled and blind. They're cute to me, but a lot of people think they're gross. They're on full display at the zoo through tons of windows and a big wall that looks like red clay dirt.

KERNS: So that's definitely the queen right there.

HUANG: You can see all the different chambers the naked mole rats use for eating, sleeping and digging and all the tunnels that connect them.

KERNS: And that's their toilet chambers. So she's going to the bathroom right now. So this is prime viewing right here at the Small Mammal House.

HUANG: They're eusocial, which means they live all crowded together in a colony with a queen who has babies and a bunch of workers who do everything else. That's like how ants and termites live, except mole rats are a lot bigger, and they're mammals.

As for the oh, or why naked mole rats are so amazing, that eusocial community structure evolved to help them gut it out in harsh environments and raise their babies, says researcher Stan Braude.

STAN BRAUDE: I mean, if you think about being, you know, the size of a cocktail hot dog and everybody out there on the African plains wants a snack, it's not an easy life.

HUANG: Braude studies naked mole rats in the wild. He's a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and he's tracked colonies of them in East Africa for 30 years.

He says naked mole rats were the very first eusocial mammals that scientists discovered. They live underground in tunnels they dig with their long front teeth. They don't drink water, and they don't get much oxygen.

BRAUDE: It was this weird environment that led to this solution to surviving and reproducing as a helpless tiny, little rodent.

HUANG: Living underground allows naked mole rats to divide up the labor, so they can stay safe and find enough food.

Eileen Lacey is a biology professor and curator of mammals at UC, Berkeley. She says these days, researchers are studying naked mole rats for their super survival traits.

EILEEN LACEY: They live forever, you know, whatever their physiology is that they don't age. You know, they're cancer resistant. I mean, it just seems like now they do everything (laughter).

HUANG: Naked mole rats are the longest-living rodent that we know of. Some are over 30 years old. They don't feel pain from stinging ants. And they slow down with age, but they rarely get cancer.

Back at the zoo, the naked mole rats are living their best lives.

KERNS: Right now, they're just kind of hanging out. They're moving around, looking for food, seeing what everybody else is up to, moving around shavings, going to the bathroom - normal mole rat things.

HUANG: Kenton Kerns, the curator, says this is pretty much what they do around the clock. They're here for you whenever you're ready to give them a second look.

Pien Huang, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.