They are homely, buck-toothed, pink, nearly hairless and just plain weird, but one of the many odd traits of rodents called naked mole-rats that live in subterranean bliss in the deserts of East Africa could someday be of great benefit to people.

Scientists said on Thursday the rodents, when deprived of oxygen in their crowded underground burrows, survive by switching to a unique type of metabolism based on the sugar fructose rather than the usual glucose, the only animal known to do so.

Metabolizing fructose is a plant strategy, and the researchers were surprised to see it in a mammal. They now hope to harness lessons learned from this rodent to design future therapies for people to prevent calamitous damage during heart attacks or strokes when oxygenated blood cannot reach the brain.