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Naked, unafraid mole rats and longevity

By JW Dowey - 29 Jan 2015 8:35:0 GMT
Naked, unafraid mole rats and longevity

The mole rat has always caught our imagination. This artificial tunnel suits this individual very well: where’s the queen today? Naked mole rat image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber, has a reputation, and a very poor image. The species lives in a habitat in East Africa that screams out for cooperation and fossorial (underground) living. Scott A Williams and Milena R Shattuck work in New York University and the University of the Witwatersrand. Their paper covers a far wider field than the mole rat in Proc Roy Soc. B, as Ecology, longevity and naked mole-rats: confounding effects of sociality?

The paper’s hidden agenda is to look at lifespan and size in comparison to a species’ environment and sociability. The point about the mole rats is that at up to 10cm (4 inches), they have no right to live as long as 30 years. Commercially speaking, if the protein in their tissues that prevents aging could be marketed, we would have the elixir of long life. Perhaps their strange eusocial lifestyle has something to do with it.

Research into the mole rat Queen system, much like the social insects, proved useful. The database the researchers built, of 440 animals, consisted of all underground, social types, that live long and prosper down there and many others who don’t. One species comes close to the mole rat in some ways. The human species developed in habitats that included life in caves and very social cooperative behaviour (not really eusocial as we tend to have got rid of our queens.) If we had evolved as fiction has sometimes taken us, an underground, blind and heavily-defensive fortress system of social living could have developed. We have overlapping generations like the mole rat, reproductive division of labour and prevent excessive mortality from external forces. And we can live quite a long time.

Other mammals and birds also evolved long life and sociality, so the links seem to be in place, after this interesting study. I’m sure we will hear more of that interesting protein.