Dolphins and Shark Attacks: Remarkable Healing Powers

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During that month-long healing process, the dolphin is exposed to all sorts of pathogens that should cause potentially fatal infections, but that doesn't happen. Zasloff has a theory about that, too, but it seems incredible. Perhaps, he suggested, the dolphin carries its own packet of antibiotics.

There is a lot of research on the composition of the blubber, and it includes "compounds that look a lot like the antibiotics that other sea creatures have to protect themselves," like algae and plankton, Zasloff said.

Maybe when the dolphin consumes those other creatures, it doesn't metabolize the natural "antibiotics" and return them to the sea. It could be that it stores those vital compounds and deploys them to an injury inflicted by a shark.

"It's not breaking them down," Zasloff said. "It's storing them in the blubber. It's as if the dolphin has decided to keep the good stuff that is made in the ocean by other creatures to fight bacteria."

But what about the pain? The Australian caregivers say dolphins attacked by sharks don't act as if they are in pain at all.

"The animal will have a gaping wound in its back, and yet it shows no evidence of any change in behavior," Zasloff said. "The animal doesn't look disturbed. It is eating as though nothing happened. That's what amazed Hassard initially."

He suspects the animal not only carries antibiotics -- it also comes equipped with built-in painkiller.

"I propose that the wound itself is releasing a pain-relieving substance, and it must be unbelievably powerful. It has to be activated at the site of the wound, and it is not going to be addictive. I would say that is perhaps the most miraculous of all," he said.

It carries its own anesthesia?

"I would call it morphine," he added. "I think we'll find it in the tissue."

But that leaves us with a final question. Why didn't the animal bleed to death in the minutes after the attack?

"That's the easy one," Zasloff said.

The dolphin probably goes into a deep dive right after the initial attack in an effort to escape, and during the dive it will need all its available blood to pump oxygen to the brain. So it shuts off the blood flow to much of the rest of its body, including the wound. By the time the animal surfaces -- maybe 20 minutes or so later -- the small amount of blood in the wound would have coagulated, closing down any possible bleeding.

Zasloff published his findings in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, and although he says he is not a dolphin expert, he has consulted others who are. Brent Whitaker, deputy executive director for biological programs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, described Zasloff's work as "thought provoking." Leigh Ann Clayton, director of the department of animal health at the aquarium, called his proposals "fascinating."

It will be a while before we know if he's right. If so, the dolphin is much more fascinating that we ever imagined.

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