Underground Sabertooth

in Deep Dives2 months ago

In many ancient mythologies we see creatures that are made up of parts of different species glued together, often but not always containing the human animal as part of the zoological collage.


NekkedRat.jpg
Hello there beauty! - source: Wikimedia Commons

Who hasn't at least heard of the Minotaur with a human body and the head and tail of a bull, the Chimera, a fire-breathing lion, with the head of a goat on its back and a tail that ends with a snake's head, the winged horse Pegasus, or the Manticore, a lion with a human head, much like the Sphinx, supplemented with a scorpion's tail? When looking for such wondrous combinations of body-parts and traits in the real world and in our own time, the platypus quickly springs to mind;

The unusual appearance of this egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate hoax. It is one of the few species of venomous mammals: the male platypus has a spur on the hind foot that delivers a venom capable of causing severe pain to humans.
source: Wikipedia

The features of this duck-billed, egg-laying, venomous, beaver-tailed and otter-footed mammal rival even those of the fantastical creatures in our world's mythologies; they must surely be the most remarkable mammal alive today, right? Well, maybe not. I have a riddle for you: what mammal has the social life of ants or bees, the cold-bloodedness of a snake, the metabolism of a plant, a body like a bratwurst with legs, and fangs like a Saber-toothed cat? Yes, it's the Sabertooth Sausage! Only they're actually called naked mole rats and they really exist in the eastern parts of Africa as well as in South America. And it isn't even a mole, nor a rat.


Nest_of_naked_mole_rats.jpg
A nest of naked mole rats - source: Wikimedia Commons

This animal is so special that I'm completely in the dark as to where to begin, so that's where I'll start; the naked mole rat almost never comes above ground, living in complete darkness for its entire life. And that life is extremely long for an animal of this size; a mouse might live 4 or 5 years, where naked mole rats have been known to reach more than 30 years! And what's even more remarkable is that they don't show any of the signs associated with getting older, they seem to not age. While naked mole rats can and do get sick, they appear to be no more likely to do so at thirty years of age as at three years.

But the sickness they die from is almost never cancer; naked mole rats are almost totally immune. It was believed until recently that they were entirely immune since not a single animal, either in the wild or captivity, had ever been known to have cancer. However it was recently discovered that two specimens from different colonies had developed tumors. Still they show remarkable resistance, which is caused by a sugar-like substance found in its tissues. This is seen as a fortunate evolutionary side-effect, as it is believed that the substance has another purpose; it gives the naked mole rat a highly elastic skin to facilitate squeezing through narrow holes and cracks. You can imagine that scientists are researching this animal quite intensely because of these traits, so humans can some day benefit from what we learn from this strange creature's resistance against aging and cancer...

But wait, the weirdness is just beginning. Although the extremely large and elastic skin of the naked mole rat contains pain receptors, they don't feel pain. The neurotransmitters needed to transport the pain-signal to their modest brains are absent. They also lack another trait common to almost all mammals: the ability to regulate their body temperature. In practice they don't need to though, because their underground tunnels and chambers have an almost constant temperature throughout the year. And when it does get too cold, they huddle together and when it's too warm they just dig a little deeper. This makes them effectively cold blooded and is also part of the reason why they can deal with extreme oxygen deprivation.


MoleRatBroodMother.jpg
Naked mole rats make excellent videogame monsters to, as seen here in Fallout 4, but...
source: GamePedia


The regulation of body temperature consumes a lot of oxygen, so our burrowing sausage doesn't need as much; almost all known mammals would quickly suffocate at the oxygen levels found in the underground habitat of the naked mole rat. To help with this they also have a special kind of hemoglobin in their blood, the cells that extract oxygen; theirs is extra "sticky", enabling it to pick up oxygen molecules even when they're really scarce and far apart. But that's not weird at all for this creature; when there's almost no oxygen at all, naked mole rats enter a mode of suspended animation. They stop moving, slow their breathing and heart-rate to greatly reduce the amount of oxygen they need.

In that state they begin to metabolize fructose, like a plant, instead of glucose like other mammals, to generate energy without the need to burn oxygen. Glucose is far more efficient and can generate more energy, but it only works when there's oxygen. Naked mole rats have survived up to 18 minutes without any oxygen at all in laboratories, and have done so without any apparent physiological damage. But even with a remarkable plantlike metabolism like this, they still need something as fuel; they need food like all other life on earth.

What they eat is found underground of course as they live on a diet of tubers, potato like roots the size of a pumpkin. And this is the root cause of their strict social behavior and organization. These tubers are far and wide spread, the ground is often so hard it's even difficult to dig in with a pick and shovel and the animals are blind. The tubers also don't release any scent or chemical signal to home in on, so a single naked mole rat, with all the aforementioned survival techniques, would die long before it found the next one. They therefore live in colonies of a couple dozen to a couple of hundreds of animals.


Real_Size_Naked_Mole_Rat_small.jpg
...but this is it's real size, so nothing to worry about ;-)
source: Flickr


"Colony" doesn't cover it though. Naked mole rats live like ants or bees, and their underground complex of tunnels, food chambers, social areas and shared toilets is built by behaving like a hive. They even have a queen whose single purpose in life is to produce offspring. She only mates with a handful of males of her choosing and has the ability to grow longer which enables her to have litters of up to 30. As such the entire population is made up of her children, and a few remaining siblings, and she mates with her most favorite sons; talk about in-breeding...

One queen can rule up to 18 years and her rule is strict and harsh. The population is comprised of soldiers and workers who defend against intruders by method of mass fang attack, take care of the queens needs, raise her children, burrow and maintain the underground palace, find food, keep other females from procreating, all the while maintaining a strict hierarchy. They not only fight in coordinated groups, they burrow the same way. One animal at the front does the actual digging, which reveals another interesting physical feature; the ginormous fangs are outside the mouth, enabling them to use them while keeping their lips closed, which prevents them from constantly eating dirt.

Since they're blind, they traverse their dark dwellings using the sparse hairs on their body to feel their way around, and they use their sense of smell. That's the reason why they just love to roll around in their own poop; if you can't see each other, then why not smell each other? And when they're not rolling around in their shit, they eat it. Highly remarkable their metabolism is, it's not very efficient and a lot of nutrients are therefore left in their excrement; to eat shit is to be efficient for a naked mole rat, also because of the bacteria in it that help digest the fibers in their food.

These unique mammals put both the platypus and the mythical creatures to shame; watch the below linked video to find out why some scientists think they not only deserve to be their own species or genus, but that they even need to be their own family. The video also gives a quick but incomplete recap of the animal's unique features, but is not completely up to date anymore as it's from before the recent discovery of tumors in two specimens. They have superpowers we would like to emulate ourself. Well, maybe not the shitty parts ;-) And maybe not the looks either; this creature won't be winning any beauty contests in this universe. Good thing that they're blind... It's save to say though that this is one of evolution's craziest lifeforms in this neighborhood of the universe. It reminds me how great a miracle life on our planet really is, and I hope it does the same for you.


The Naked Mole-Rat

The above is a slightly redacted version of a post I originally published on Steemit in October 2018.


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