The hypoxia tolerance of eight related African mole-rat species rivals that of naked mole-rats, despite divergent ventilatory and metabolic strategies in severe hypoxia

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2020 Apr;228(4):e13436. doi: 10.1111/apha.13436. Epub 2020 Jan 21.


Aims: Burrowing mammals tend to be more hypoxia tolerant than non-burrowing mammals and rely less on increases in ventilation and more on decreases in metabolic rate to tolerate hypoxia. Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber, NMRs), eusocial mammals that live in large colonies, are among the most hypoxia-tolerant mammals, and rely almost solely on decreases in metabolism with little change in ventilation during hypoxia. We hypothesized that the remarkable hypoxia tolerance of NMRs is an evolutionarily conserved trait derived from repeated exposure to severe hypoxia owing to their burrow environment and eusocial colony organization.

Methods: We used whole-body plethysmography and indirect calorimetry to measure the hypoxic ventilatory and metabolic responses of eight mole-rat species closely related to the NMR.

Results: We found that all eight species examined had a strong tolerance to hypoxia, with most species tolerating 3 kPa O2 , Heliophobius emini tolerating 2 kPa O2 and Bathyergus suillus tolerating 5 kPa O2 . All species examined employed a combination of increases in ventilation and decreases in metabolism in hypoxia, a response midway between that of the NMR and that of other fossorial species (larger ventilatory responses, lesser reductions in metabolism). We found that eusociality is not fundamental to the physiological response to hypoxia of NMRs as Fukomys damarensis, another eusocial species, was among this group.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that, while the NMR is unique in the pattern of their physiological response to hypoxia, eight closely related mole-rat species share the ability to tolerate hypoxia like the current "hypoxia-tolerant champion," the NMR.

Keywords: chemosensitivity; control of breathing; fossorial; hypoxic metabolic response; hypoxic ventilatory response; thermoregulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology
  • Calorimetry, Indirect / methods
  • Hypoxia / metabolism*
  • Lung / physiology
  • Mole Rats / physiology*
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Plethysmography, Whole Body / methods
  • Respiration*


  • Oxygen