The naked mole rat is often the butt of internet jokes – not a photogenic creature, it lives underground and looks like it does too, with folded pink skin and bucked front teeth.
It has taken a creature this odd to bring together art and science in a new project that studies the mammal, and generates art from the same data.
Artist Julie Freeman and mole rat expert Dr Chris Faulkes met in the tea room at Queen Mary University and decided to create Rodent Activity Transmissions (Rat) systems.
While he studies the mole rats’ movement and behaviour, she makes art, both digital and physical, that responds live to that information.
The mouse-sized creatures’ movements are tracked and the individual activity of each animal is plotted, as well as their favourite routes around their cage.
All of this information updates live with what the mole rats in the lab are doing at that moment.
You too can watch what one of their colonies of mole rats, colony alpha, is doing in real time on the project website.
And this data is valuable to researchers too, since the animal is something of a mystery to scientists.
Despite being mammals, they are practically cold blooded. They are almost completely resistant to cancer, and live far longer than they should do – up to 32 years – considering their size.
Artist Julie has used the scientific data to create the animated artwork below, soundscapes and even a moving sculpture that flexes in response to the mole rats’ movements around their enclosure.
“Because it’s live data from the mole rat colony, we want to see whether the objects look like they’re alive as well,” she said.
When asked why she chose mole rats for her artwork, she said: “They’re just so special.
“To make artwork with live animals is just a dream.
“When you’ve got an artwork that’s running with live (animals), if the artwork stops, does it mean something has died? Or does it mean that the network is down?”
Julie’s collaborator Dr Faulkes is using the 6,000,000 data points collected so far to analyse their strange behaviour.
Naked mole rats are eusocial animals who, like bees, have one reproducing queen and three breeding males in a colony. The rest of the group contribute in other ways and don’t pass on their own DNA, which is extremely strange for a mammal.
“Their genetic make-up is massively of interest to scientists,” Julie said, as it could be relevant to human cancer treatment.
“They’re like the superhero of the mammal world!”