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Warning: Do NOT get into a breath-holding contest with a naked mole rat

“We had hints that naked mole
rats
might be rock stars at surviving oxygen deprivation,”
said Thomas Park, a biologist at the University of Illinois,
Chicago. That’s why he stuck a bunch of naked mole rats in a
chamber with only five percent oxygen. As a point of
comparison, the atmosphere at sea level is about 21 percent
oxygen. The atmosphere at the top of Mount Everest is around
six percent. The results of his experiment were published today
in the journal Science,
and they’re pretty wild.

“There’s nothing special about five percent except that we knew
it would be fatal to humans, and fatal to laboratory mice, and
probably to everybody else,” said Park. “We were at the ready
to abort the experiment and pull the animals out of the chamber
if they started to look like they were having problems.”

Park and his colleagues expected the naked mole rats to start
running out of oxygen within 15 to 20 minutes. After all, the
literal lab rats they exposed to the same conditions all died
within that timespan.

“An hour into the experiment [the naked mole rats] looked
perfectly fine,” said Park. “After five hours, we were
convinced that five percent oxygen is not a problem for these
guys, so we decided to call it a night, go home, and have
dinner.”

To understand why Park and his colleagues at the Max Delbrück
Institute in Berlin and the University of Pretoria in South
Africa suspected that naked mole rats might do well in a low
oxygen environments, it helps to know a bit about the critters.

Naked mole rats are cold blooded. It’s a trait that they share
with reptiles, but not with other mammals. The fact that they
don’t really regulate their own body temperature means they
don’t expend any energy staying warm, so they need less oxygen
compared to more common rats and mice. And their hemoglobin, or
red blood cells, are unusually sticky. They can pull oxygen out
of air that would leave most mammals gasping for breath. Then,
of course, there’s the way naked mole rats live: in complex
burrow systems with upwards of 200-300 inhabitants, where
CO2 can easily accumulate.

“In their burrow system,” said Park, “the oxygen
levels are very low and the carbon dioxide levels are very
high.”

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