Cutting off oxygen for most creatures will result in near-instant death.
But scientists have discovered that one animal – the naked mole rat – is able to survive for up to five hours while starved of oxygen.
The strange-looking creature is able to create oxygen in its own body with a chemical reaction.
The strange-looking mole-rat uses fructose to produce oxygen with its own body
It can create oxygen without using its lungs – producing it from fructose, a type of sugar, within its own body.
It is hoped that understanding the extraordinary trick performed by the naked mole rat could lead to new treatments for heart attacks and strokes.
Being able to breathe without using their lungs is only the latest extraordinary ability found in the creatures.
Naked mole rats, which lack fur and live in complex underground burrows, were already known to live decades longer than other rodents, resist getting cancer, and be impervious to many types of pain.
They are also virtually cold-blooded and the only mammal with a social structure similar to that of ants and termites.
Naked mole rats live decades longer than other rodents, resist getting cancer and are impervious to certain types of pain
Each colony has a female queen that gives birth to young, a small number of breeding males, and numerous sterile workers.
Lead scientist Professor Thomas Park, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, US, said: ‘The naked mole rat has simply rearranged some basic building-blocks of metabolism to make it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions.’
In laboratory tests, naked mole rats totally starved of oxygen went into a state of suspended animation but survived for up to 18 minutes with no lasting ill effects.
Mole rats can survive for hours with oxygen levels that would be fatal to humans in minutes
Mice subjected to the same conditions perished in 20 seconds.
At oxygen levels low enough to be fatal to humans within minutes, the creatures kept going for at least five hours.
As they switched from normal metabolism, the naked mole rats released large amounts of fructose in their bloodstreams and used it as an energy source.
The ability to do without oxygen is thought to be an adaptation to living in airless super-crowded burrows packed with hundreds of colony-mates.
Mole rats live in complex underground burrows with a social structure similar to ants
The findings, published in the journal Science, could help researchers devise new strategies to prevent tissue damage in victims of heart attacks and strokes.
German co-author Professor Gary Lewin, from the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, said: ‘Our work is the first evidence that a mammal switches to fructose as a fuel.
‘Patients who suffer an infarction (heart attack) or stroke experience irreparable damage after just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation.’