Temporal range: Early Miocene–Recent
Nannospalax Palmer, 1903
The genus Spalax contains the blind, fossorial, or subterranean mole rats, which are one of several types of rodents that are called mole rats. The hystricognath mole rats of the family Bathyergidae are completely unrelated, but some other forms are also in the family Spalacidae. Zokors (subfamily Myospalacinae) and root rats and bamboo rats (subfamily Rhizomyinae) are spalacids sometimes referred to as mole rats. Blind mole rats are in the family Spalacidae, but are unique enough to be given a separate subfamily, Spalacinae. Alternate opinions on taxonomy consider the blind mole rats to be the only members of the family Spalacidae and rank other spalacid subfamilies as full families. Other authors group all members of the superfamily Muroidea into a single family, Muridae. The Spalacinae contains two genera and eight species. Some authorities treat all species as belonging to a single genus, Spalax.
Spalax mole rats are truly blind. Their very small eyes are completely covered by a layer of skin. Unlike many other fossorial rodents, Spalax mole rats do not have enlarged front claws and do not appear to use their forearms as a primary digging tool. Digging is almost exclusively conducted using their powerful front teeth, which are separated from the rest of the mouth by a flap of skin. When a Spalax mole rat closes its mouth, its incisors are still on the outside. It has been suggested that blind mole rats may have evolved from spalacids that used their front limbs to dig, because their olecranon process is relatively large relative to the rest of the arm. The olecranon process is a part of the ulna bone where muscles attach, and digging animals tend to have enlarged olecranon processes to provide a lot of surface for their large and powerful muscles to attach.
Resistance to cancer
Studies on the growth of fibroblasts in vitro of Spalax judaei and Spalax golani showed that the process of necrosis replaces the role of the systematic apoptosis normally used in many organisms. Low oxygen conditions, such as those common in blind mole rats’ burrows, usually cause cells to undergo apoptosis. In adaptation to higher tendency of cell death, blind mole rats evolved a mutation in the tumor suppressor protein p53 (which is also used in humans) to prevent cells from undergoing apoptosis. Human cancer patients have similar mutations, and blind mole rats were thought to be more susceptible to cancer because their cells cannot undergo apoptosis. However, after a specific amount of time (within 3 days according to a study conducted at the University of Rochester), the cells in blind mole rats release interferon-beta (which the immune system normally uses to counter viruses) in response to over-proliferation of cells caused by the suppression of apoptosis. In this case, the interferon-beta triggers cells to undergo necrosis, and this mechanism also kills cancer cells in blind mole rats. Because of tumor suppression mechanisms such as this, blind mole rats and other spalacids are resistant to cancer.
- Genus Spalax – Blind mole rats
- Sandy Mole Rat, Spalax arenarius
- Mt. Carmel Blind Mole Rat, Spalax carmeli
- Middle East Blind Mole Rat, Spalax ehrenbergi
- Upper Galilee Mountains Blind Mole Rat, Spalax galili
- Giant Mole Rat, Spalax giganteus
- Golan Heights Blind Mole Rat, Spalax golani
- Balkan Mole Rat, Spalax graecus
- Judean Mountains Blind Mole Rat, Spalax judaei
- Lesser Mole Rat, Spalax leucodon
- Greater Mole Rat, Spalax microphthalmus
- Munzur Mole Rat, Spalax munzuri
- Nehring's Blind Mole Rat, Spalax nehringi
- Kazakhstan Blind Mole Rat, Spalax uralensis
- Podolsk Mole Rat, Spalax zemni
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