Image: Buffenstein/Barshop Institute/UTHSCSA, Flickr

It must be nice to be a naked mole rat. This hairless, burrowing rodent is not only highly resistant to tumor growth, but it turns out they don’t really age either.

In fact, scientists believe these fascinating creatures may hold the key to understanding longevity, curing cancer, and other medical miracles.

Naked mole rats have long been recognized for their unusual lifespan despite naturally crowded, poor living conditions. They often live longer than 30 years in captivity and up to 17 years in the wild, making them the longest living rodents in the world. Now, new research published by eLife suggests that these animals get older without the kind of increased risk of death and physiological decline seen in humans and other animals.

Remarkably, their likelihood of dying appears to be the same no matter what age they are, the researchers found.

Image: Tim Evanson, Flickr

But that’s not all. Only two known instances of cancer in naked mole rats have ever been documented and they were discovered only a few years ago, surprising scientists who have long believed that these hardy animals were incapable of getting the disease. Other than these two rare cases, the rodents have traditionally been resistant even to attempts to artificially induce cancer in experiments.

A report published in the journal Nature attributes the lack of tumor development to a higher concentration of a molecule called hyaluronan than found in other species, like mice and humans.

The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is native to parts of East Africa including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. They are tiny, measuring between three to four inches in length and weighing just over a pound.

Naked mole rats are capable of moving at great speeds forwards and backward beneath the earth and boast large jutting teeth with which they dig through soil. They reside in harsh, high carbon-dioxide conditions underground, making for fascinating scientific specimens.

Their tiny lungs have evolved an extremely high affinity for oxygen, allowing them to survive in these air-depleted underground conditions. In addition, naked mole rats are the only known mammals capable of thermoregulation on the planet.