Largely lost among the succession of well-known awards for film, television, and literature was Science magazine’s annual award for Vertebrate of the Year. Pope Francis may have been Time’s consensus pick as Person of the Year for 2013, but the naked mole rat ran away—so to speak–with the Vertebrate of the Year Award.
The naked mole rat is an ugly little animal that spends most of its life underground, almost as if it is aware of its own hideousness.
Actually the naked mole rat is not even a clear-cut winner as the ugliest of the mole rats. I think that the star-nosed mole rat may be even uglier.
But the mole rats, a species native to East Africa, are of great interest to scientific researchers for two reasons. Unlike most rodents, which have relatively short lifespans, the mole rat is a miracle of longevity, living for as long as thirty years, or about nine times the lifespan of most other rats and mice. Moreover, one of the secrets of the mole rat’s longevity is that it is largely immune to cancers.
Researchers have focused on the mole rat’s ability to build proteins with very few cellular errors, through a process called protein transcription, an ability that also seems related to their longevity. Researchers have also focused on a substance called hyaluronan that is denser in mole rats than it is in other rodents and in other species, including human beings. It not only makes their skin and supporting tissues more elastic, allowing them to move more effortlessly through soil, but it also seems related to their immunity to cancers.
In its profile of its Vertebrate of the Year, Science quotes researcher Vera Gorbunova on the peculiar charm of these seemingly repulsive little creatures: “’Some people think these animals are ugly, but once you see them actually moving, you can see that they are very cute and there is inner beauty in these animals.’”
Some people really love those hairless little dogs, too, but they give me the creeps.
By the way, Science’s Invertebrate of the year for 2013 was the planthopper.
The nymphs of these tiny bugs appear to be the peacocks of the bug world.
I suspect that referring to insects as “bugs” may be the equivalent of calling a ship a “boat.” If that’s the case, then I suppose that I owe apologies to more than the mole rats.