After a Nuclear War:
Meet the Species That May Come After Humans
Grim news showers us every day from the war in Ukraine, and given the real possibility of an extensive nuclear war, we may wonder what would happen to life on our planet if the worst possible scenario occurred?
It might mean the end of the human species and most of the larger organisms that dwell on the surface of our planet, given the expected high radiation doses and extreme disturbances in weather and climate. In other words, it would be a major extinction event similar in severity or even worse than those earlier in Earth’s geological history. In the other extinction events, life always recovered, but could an intelligent species capable of technological advancement evolve after some time? And possibly do better than us?
I believe that the naked mole-rat could become that species. It would most likely survive a nuclear war because it spends nearly all of its time in subsurface burrows. There it would be shielded from both radiation and extreme weather. Naked mole-rats are also extremely resistant to cancer, which would help them to survive in a high-radiation environment. Their long-life span is about 30 years, which is a record for rodents. Some may even get older as you see them very rarely die of natural causes. What protects them from cancer appears to also be responsible for their slow aging process.
Naked mole-rats are not incredibly intelligent today, but— as I pointed out in a paper published in 2019 with Rochelle Buffenstein, they have a lot of latent potential for intelligence and many traits which would propel their evolution in the direction of greater intelligence.
A trademark of the most intelligent animals on our planet is being playful and sociable. Naked mole-rats are just that and live together in colonies of about 100 -150 individuals, which is similar to humans who can maintain about 150 stable social relationships. In their underground burrows, naked mole-rats keep sanitary conditions and undertake sustainable farming practices by harvesting large tubers of the plant Pyrenacantha kaurbassana. They tend to eat the soft inner parts so that the plant can regenerate and survive. That way, they do not run out of food and provide a great example of sustainable farming.
Naked mole-rats are one of the few mammalian species that are eusocial, meaning they have a similar social structure to termites, bees, and ants, and are ruled by a queen. Seeing that individualism got us to the brink of a catastrophe (though I must admit that personally, I like individuality in humans), this may be a quite intriguing social experiment of nature using a different approach.
And there is a precedent for believing that rodents may have a special role in a post-apocalyptic world. The End-Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago killed off the non-feathered dinosaurs, but our rat-like ancestors survived and reigned in the age of the mammals. One type of mammal, humans, eventually became the most dominant species on our planet. The main evolutionary hurdle for naked mole-rats to survive an apocalypse and advance to become a more intelligent species would probably be their strict plant-based diet, but if they can expand their diet to also consume other animals, alive or dead, well…
They still wouldn’t win a beauty pageant, but then beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Let’s hope humanity does not start a nuclear war or succumb to one of its other existential risks, so naked mole-rats can just happily continue to feed on their tubers and don’t have to take over from us.