The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), also known as the sand puppy or desert mole rat, is a burrowing blesmol native to parts of East Africa and is the only species currently classified in the genusHeterocephalus. The naked mole-rat and the Damaraland mole-rat are the only known eusocial mammals. It has a highly unusual set of physical traits that enable it to thrive in an otherwise harsh underground environment; it is the only mammalian thermoconformer.
The mole rat lacks pain sensitivity in its skin, and has very low metabolicand respiratory rates. While traditionally considered to belong to the same family as other African mole-rats, the Bathyergidae, more recent investigation suggests that the naked mole-rat is sufficiently divergent to be placed in a new, separate family, Heterocephalidae. The mole rat is also remarkable for its longevity and its resistance to cancer.
Typical individuals are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz). Queens are larger and may weigh well over 50 grams (1.8 oz), the largest reaching 80 grams (2.8 oz). They are well-adapted to their underground existence. Their eyes are quite small, and their visual acuity is poor. Their legs are thin and short; however, they are highly adept at moving underground and can move backward as fast as they can move forward. Their large, protruding teeth are used to dig and their lips are sealed just behind the teeth, preventing soil from filling their mouths while digging. About a quarter of their musculature is used in the closing of their jaws while they dig - about the same proportion that is utilized in the human leg. They have little hair (hence the common name) and wrinkled pink or yellowish skin. They lack an insulating layer in the skin.
The naked mole-rat is well adapted for the limited availability of oxygen within the tunnels of its typical habitat; its lungs are very small and its blood has a very strong affinity for oxygen, increasing the efficiency of oxygen uptake. It has a very low respiration and metabolic rate for an animal of its size, about 2/3 that of a similarly sized mouse, thus using oxygen minimally. In response to long periods of hunger, its metabolic rate can be reduced by up to 25 percent.
The naked mole-rat does not regulate its body temperature in typical mammalian fashion. They are thermoconformers rather than thermoregulators in that, unlike other mammals, body temperature tracks ambient temperatures. However, it has also been claimed that "the Naked Mole-Rat has a distinct temperature and activity rhythm that is not coupled to environmental conditions." The relationship between oxygen consumption and ambient temperature switches from a typical poikilothermic pattern to a homeothermic mode when temperature is at 28 °C or higher. At lower temperatures naked mole-rats can use behavioral thermoregulation. For example, cold naked mole-rats huddle together or seek shallow parts of the burrows that are warmed by the sun. Conversely, when they get too hot, naked mole-rats retreat to the deeper, cooler parts of the burrows.
The skin of naked mole-rats lacks a key neurotransmitter called substance P that is responsible in mammals for sending pain signals to the central nervous system. As a result, the naked mole-rats feel no pain, even when they are exposed to acid or capsaicin. When they are injected with substance P, however, the pain signaling works as it does in other mammals, but only with capsaicin and not with acids. This is proposed to be an adaptation to the animal living in high levels of carbon dioxide due to poorly ventilated living spaces, which would cause acid to build up in their body tissues.
Reproducing females become the dominant female, usually, by founding new colonies, fighting for the dominant position, or taking over once the reproducing female dies. These reproducing females tend to have longer bodies than that of their non-reproducing counterparts of the same skull width. Interestingly enough, the measurements of females before they became reproductive and after show significant increases in body size. It is believed that this trait does not occur due to pre-existing morphological differences but to the actual attainment of the dominant female position. As with the reproductive females, the reproductive males also appear to be bigger in size than their non-reproducing counterparts but not as much so as in the case of the females. These males also have visible outlines of the testes through the skin of their abdomens. Unlike the females, there are usually multiple reproducing males.