Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) have presented a puzzle to biologists for many years, as they live much longer than is expected of animals of their size. A new theory on how they manage this suggests its all about protecting the young so they can afford to grow up slowly.
Intriguingly, humans appear to be a following in the mole rat's naked footsteps, evolving to have longer lifespans, and not just through the benefits of medical technology.
Naked mole rats are rodents but not rats, and even less closely related to moles. They are probably most famous for being considered one of the ugliest creatures around. After that comes their resistance to cancer. Although reports last year showed that this resistance is not absolute, with four mole rats found to have tumors, it is still agreed that cancer is much rarer in the mole rat than other mammal. Even those who do get cancer survive much longer than their counterparts in other rodent species.
Near immunity to cancer certainly helps with life expectancy, and who knows, maybe being that ugly means no one wants to eat you. Nevertheless, those factors alone cannot explain how naked mole rats have a life expectancy of around 30 years, when most mammals their size are lucky to make it past six.
According to Moscow State University's Professor Victor Sadovnichii, somewhere in their burrowing under the African deserts, naked mole rats discovered the fountain of youth and have been drinking from it ever since. In Physiological Reviews, Sadovnichii attributes mole rats' longevity to their social structure, which has allowed them to prolong their youth. This has slowed down both their maturation and aging processes, or what Sadovnichii calls their Master Biological Clock.
Slowing the clock has caused the naked mole rats to maintain many features of youth that pass quickly in other animals.