Naked Mole Rats: A Special Kind of Ugly

by Joel Ebert on September 1, 2019
Featured in Answers Magazine
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It’s just as well that these unsightly creatures live underground.

In the arid soil of East Africa, a farmer notices that something has been nibbling his yams. Spotting a small, volcano-shaped mound, he immediately knows the culprit: naked mole-rats.

It’s just as well that these pesky creatures live underground. With their tiny eyes, long teeth, and hairless, yellow-pink skin, naked mole-rats would be a horrifying sight scurrying across our lawns. Yet they remind us that God’s creative brilliance can be found in even seemingly hideous packages.

The Naked Truth—Can You Dig It?

Though they live in humble places, naked mole-rats certainly aren’t inferior. God built them with a unique anatomy and metabolism to fill a special niche. But don’t let their name fool you; though they are considered rodents, they aren’t rats. Along with other members of their kind (blesmols), naked mole-rats are equipped to tunnel underground and live on roots and bulbs that grow in the harsh underworld.


Naked mole-rats form an efficient work chain to remove dirt in underground tunnels that extend up to 2.5 miles.

Like tiny mining machines, naked mole-rats have long, chisel-like teeth on the outside of their mouth, allowing them to conveniently dig without choking on dirt. When they’re done chipping away, they sweep the dirt back to the next crew member with their broom-like paws (one of the few places on their body with hair). In an assembly line, the tunnelers keep moving the dirt to the rear until the final one pushes it to the surface.

Their wrinkly, hairless skin reduces friction, and their sausage-like figure helps these rodents of unusual shape quickly squeeze forward and backward through their narrow tunnels. Their nakedness also prevents parasites, which would infest a fur coat.

But “naked” is an overstatement. In addition to the hair on their paws, naked mole-rats have rows of bristly hairs running the length of their body. Because their eyes can’t see very well, naked mole-rats often travel with their eyes closed, relying on other senses—like the hairs—to inform them of their surroundings.

The amount of brain space that most mammals devote to vision is devoted to another sensory aid in naked mole-rats: their four front teeth (incisors). These teeth are surprisingly dexterous, like fingers, and the bottom teeth can even move independently to better carve tunnels, carry pups, or even engage in social interactions, such as incisor fencing when they lock teeth to fight.

Queen Work Makes the Team Work

The difficulty of digging and hunting for sparse roots makes one thing certain: no naked mole-rat can survive alone. Instead, they live together and divide their labor, much like eusocial insects such as bees and ants. The naked mole-rat is one of only two mammal species that show this type of cooperation. (The other is the Damaraland mole-rat.) Each colony has housekeepers, soldiers, and a queen who bullies and bites the others into servitude and alone breeds the future generations of mole-rats (up to 27 pups in each litter). If the queen dies, other females will fight to see who dominates. The larger female usually wins. Her body will then elongate, with her brain and organs changing to match her regal role.

A Special Kind of Ugly

What naked mole-rats lack in looks, they make up for in intriguing physical anomalies. Naked mole-rats can survive up to 18 minutes in conditions with extremely low oxygen—like underground tunnels. A type of hemoglobin in their blood holds tightly to oxygen. For energy, they use fructose, a fuel source that doesn’t require oxygen to metabolize (change into energy). They are immune to pain caused by acid, so they are comfortable in the high levels of acidic carbon dioxide present in their burrows, where other mammals would feel a burning sensation. Able to endure toxic conditions lethal to other mammals, the naked mole-rat has an extremely high resistance to cancer and defies normal aging processes associated with cell breakdown (both of which intrigue researchers studying these areas in humans).

Medical researchers also hope to use their findings about naked mole-rats to help humans survive oxygen deprivation caused by a stroke or heart attack.

Farmers might attempt to rid their fields of these ugly tuber thieves, but scientists see the naked mole-rat as a buried treasure of exciting discoveries.

Created to be Complex

Evolutionists often point to the demands of a harsh environment to explain the existence of so many unique traits. But where did those traits first come from?

Creationists have more options open to us because we accept that naked mole-rats—like all creatures—are part of a kind created by God for a purpose, just as Genesis 1 records. Since many of the naked mole-rat’s features are complex and well-coordinated, and since many of the same features are found in the naked mole-rat’s relatives (others in the blesmol kind), it makes sense to conclude they were intricately designed and programmed to excel at life underground. On the other hand, some features, like cancer resistance, could have arisen after the fall due to their harsh habitat.

God placed wide variety in his creatures so that they could fill all sorts of niches in the world—and the underworld. The riches of his creation are everywhere. As we consider these wretched-looking little beasts, we should note that Jesus calls us to remember that without him we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Even so, he offers us his true riches of grace and mercy (Revelation 3:17–18).


Illustration by DAVE MOTTRAM

Did You Know . . .

Because naked mole-rats are immune to acidic pain, they can endure toxic conditions that are lethal to other mammals.

About one quarter of their entire muscle mass is packed around the jaw. That’s roughly the same percentage of muscle in a human’s legs.

The total length of a colony's tunnel system can be 2.5 miles (4 k) long and up to 6.5 feet (2 m) deep.

A colony can spread as far as at least 6 football fields and include up to 300 members.

Naked mole-rats build special rooms in their burrows, each devoted to a task such as sleeping or going to the bathroom. The bathroom is also used as a quarantine room for sick mole-rats or as a station where they roll in urine to cover themselves in the colony’s scent. They also create a “nursery” where the queen raises her pups.


Illustration by DAVE MOTTRAM

Joel Ebert holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He currently teaches high school science in Milwaukee and has taught a broad range of subjects including biology, anatomy, and Old Testament survey.

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