The naked mole rat, a subterranean rodent native to East Africa, can live up to 30 years, roughly nine times longer than mice of the same size. With two yellow buck teeth protruding from a pale, hairless body, the mammal may not be an eye pleaser, but it has an alluring longevity-related adaptation that has gripped researchers in recent years: It seems to be immune to cancer. [Extreme Life on Earth: 8 Bizarre Creatures]

The academic journal Science Magazine chose the animal as its 2013 Vertebrate of the Year to celebrate two groundbreaking studies this year that have helped explain the animal's resistance to cancer.

Unraveling mole rat mysteries

The first study, published in June in the journal Nature by a team of researchers based at the University of Rochester in New York state, described a substance called hyaluronan that the rodents accumulate between their tissues in a molecularly heavier form than the hyaluronan found in humans and mice. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) The heavier form of the substance is, in part, thought to help make the rat's more skin elastic. This is particularly useful foranimals that spend their days crawling through narrow underground tunnels. The researchers also discovered that when they removed the heavy substance from the rodents' tissues, the animals lost their resistance to tumors.