Superheroes, at least the ones portrayed in comics, are not real.
I’m talking about the ones that will miraculously heal within mere seconds. Or the ones that use the power of nature to their advantage.
But wait a second, this isn’t as far fetched as it may seem. What if I told you that all animals are, in their own ways, superheroes?
Well, you would think I’m crazy, for sure.
But bare with me. For all animals on Earth possess a secret, hidden superpower! The immune system: the body’s ultimate weapon to neutralizing enemy attacks and healing fast.
All animals, from primitive sponges, to multicellular mammals, have an immune system that works around the clock to protect the body from bacterial, fungal or viral attacks. But the immune system isn’t the only factor that speeds up healing. From self-amputation, to zoopharmocognosy, animals deploy various tactics to heal fast.
We will be breaking this article up into specific subheadings. However, all animals on this list are some of the fastest healers in The Animal Kingdom, in one way or another. Read on to discover more.
Animals That Heal Fast Using Their Immune System
Powerful immune systems can help animals do everything from eating raw meat without getting sick to healing rapidly after a serious wound. It’s not the only way that animals heal rapidly but we’ll start here!
Many different species of birds have some form of avian antibodies, known as immunoglobulin, that can be passed down from mother into the yolk of her developing eggs.
However, it is thought that ostriches produce some of the most powerful antibodies known in the terrestrial world.
The ostrich lineage is old. In fact, fossil evidence suggests ostriches’ have been roaming around planet Earth for some 25 million years.
That’s a long time. Enough time for their immune system to evolve into something remarkable. And that’s exactly what it has done.
When exposed to an antigen, a foreign invader that induces the immune response of a host, antibodies within an ostrich quickly swarm on the unwanted invader and eliminate any threat.
Studies have explored the effectiveness of ostrich immunoglobulin and found that, not only is this protein less heat resistant and more acidic than immunoglobulin found in other bird species, but it successfully kills off bacteria and viruses, such as influenza, coronavirus, dermal bacteria and allergens.
This makes the immune system of the ostrich one of the fastest acting responses in the Animal Kingdom. They can heal their bodies from infection and disease within a very short timeframe.
There is a great interest in the cosmetic and pharmacological industries that are looking at the extraction of this immunoglobulin for restoring and healing hair.
Right. Strap in for this one, we’re getting technical.
Horseshoe crabs are prehistoric arthropods. They are often referred to as living-fossils, and can be found in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
However, don’t let their menacing facade put you off. As the famous saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Within the body cavity of the horseshoe crab, blue hemolymph filled with hemocytes circulate. These hemocytes play an important role in cellular defenses of the horseshoe crab, from clotting to phagocytosis.
“Phago-what?”, I hear you ask.
Phagocytosis is the process whereby special cells encapsulate and consume bacteria within the body. This is their body waging a war on pathogenic invaders, in a cycle of flighting and healing.
Not only this, but this “blue blood” contains arthropodous peptide antibiotics, also referred to as tachyplesin, and antibacterial proteins, called anti-PLS factor. These compounds are also found within hemocytes.
Phagocytosis, tachyplesin, anti-LPS factor… Boy oh boy, the scientists naming these compounds went the extra mile to make things that wee bit more complicated for us.
Anyway, complications aside, these horseshoe crabs have the amazing ability to heal themselves against pathogenic infections. These compounds inhibit the growth of both Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria, as well as certain fungal spores.
These healing hemolymph properties have not gone unnoticed by us humans, who harvest horseshoe crabs by the thousands for our own medical purposes.
Within the blood, more proteins, known as Limulus Amebocyte Lysates, can be used to detect bacterial substances in humans. As such, the blood is important for the development of human vaccines.
Not bad, for an old invertebrate that spends a lot of its time upside down.
Dolphins. Yes, the lovable pups of the sea.
But, not only are they cute, but they are also one of the fastest healers out there.
Dolphins that have been subject to serious shark bites do not appear to hemorrhage. Or even appear to show pain. In fact, and despite obvious gaping wounds, dolphins have evolved mechanisms to avoid infections altogether.
I mean, if a human were to be bitten by a shark, we’d be in the hospital for days, if not weeks. If we survive, that is. Afterall, the mouth of a shark is home to some pretty nasty bacteria for us, that has the potential to cause sepsis! At the very least, we will need a healthy dose of antibiotics to see us through.
So, just how does a dolphin heal so fast?
Well, the secret may be found in the blubber – a layer of fatty tissue – which is home to organohalogens.
I know, I know, these scientists were really on quite the rampage when it came to naming specific terms. But bear with me, we’re going to break this thing down.
So, organohalogens. These are organic compounds that contain at least one halogen element (fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine), bonded to carbon. It is these special compounds that act like antibiotics and prevent the tissue from getting infected.
However, preventing infection is just one side of the story. Surely, with such a nasty wound, scarring would be a big issue?
Even with a chunk of flesh missing, a dolphin can regrow and recover the missing portion of its body. No skin grafts, no prosthetics, just good old fashioned healing powers.
It is thought that stem cells are responsible for this. These special cells have the ability to morph into any other cell. In the case of the dolphins, stem cells create a fleshy patch that is woven back into the surrounding tissue, barely leaving a scar in the process.
So, dolphin blubber is not only full of antibacterial compounds, it also contains a vast amount of stem cells that can promote fast healing and a full recovery within weeks. No wonder scientists are turning to dolphins to help understand how better to heal physical trauma in us humans.
If you can get past the squeamishness of cockroaches, you will start to appreciate how incredible these invertebrates are.
Firstly, the miniscule brain of a cockroach is packed with a cocktail of antibacterial compounds that can wipe out strains of bacteria.
For example, MRSA, a type of antibiotic resistant bacterial infection that is common in hospitals and causes skin infections and pneumonia, can be fatal in humans.
However, scientists discovered that the antibacterial molecules found in a cockroach effectively wiped out at least 90% of the MRSA bacteria on contact.
But that’s not all. Their real healing powers come from within.
Similar to horseshoe crabs, the internal cavity of the cockroach is filled with a free-flowing liquid, called hemolymph. This is known as an open-circulatory system. This is the star of the show for cockroach healing.
Small fragments of cells, called platelets, are found within the hemolymph. These platelets are responsible for clotting.
The first line of defense against pathogens in cockroaches is their thick, waxy cuticle. However, if there is a breach, clotting localizes the immune response to the breached area. Clotting also prevents the further spread of pathogens throughout the haemocoel.
But clotting also helps heal the cockroach quickly. For example, if a cockroach loses a leg, the hemolymph will clot at the site of detachment. Platelets seal the wound and pathogens cannot enter the body.
So, if you have heard that a cockroach can live without a head, well this is somewhat true! A clot will simply form where the head used to be. It can carry on scattering around your kitchen floor, headless, but otherwise normal. That is until it finds out that it can’t eat without a head…
Animals That Heal Fast Without Using Their Immune System
The immune system is great. There’s no doubt about it. It protects our bodies, as well as the bodies of every other animal on Earth.
However, it is not the only way that animals heal fast.
For this section, we’re deviating away from the immune response to healing and looking at how certain animals heal fast with the use of other methods.
Imagine walking down the street, when suddenly, a hungry lion appears out of nowhere (yes, I did say use your imagination). You panic; there’s no time to hide. No time to run away.
The only thing left you can do is to break off an arm or a leg, throw it at the lion and run away. The protein-packed distraction gives you precious minutes to run to safety.
Sounds crazy, right?
But in the lizard world, this is perfectly normal. Of course, so is falling from trees every now and then too.
Known as caudal autotomy, lizards are known to voluntarily amputate their own tails to escape predators. The wriggling limb left on the floor is either consumed by predators or leaves the predator distracted long enough for the lizard to escape.
While this sounds great in hindsight, what about the gaping wound where the tail used to be? Surely this is an open invitation to pathogens?
Well, as an initial response to skeletal trauma, lizards can automatically produce an excess of cartilage.
This cartilage is produced by none other than stem cells, the specialized cells we saw in dolphin blubber that speeds the healing process! These cells form a cartilage callus that bridges the gap between broken bone. The cartilage eventually turns to bone and the fracture is healed.
As soon as a tail becomes dislodged, the terminal tail vertebra is exposed. But within a week, a layer of skin cells spreads over the stump and thickens to form an apical cap, or fibroelastic scarring.
Certain compounds, such as antimicrobial peptides, are synthesized and released following tail amputations. These compounds attack and destroy bacteria that could potentially cause fatal infections.
So, a tough layer of skin and microbe-killing compounds help lizards heal fast after losing their tails.
But not all lizards can do this. Take the crested gecko, for example. They can dislodge their tail with ease. However, they cannot grow it back. After all, this is an energetically costly process. They invest the energy into getting bigger, rather than regenerating a tail.
Following the theme of dislodging limbs, the next animal on the list that has the amazing ability to heal quickly is the starfish.
There are over 1,800 species of starfish distributed across the globe, and most possess the miraculous power of regeneration. In fact, a starfish can grow an entirely new body from one dislodged arm.
There are three distinct ways in which a starfish can heal and regenerate, however, unidirectional regeneration is by far the most common. To do this, at least half of the central disk needs to be present.
As we just said, unidirectional regeneration is perhaps the most common method of regeneration with starfish. The crown of thorns starfish, found in the Indo-Pacific region, is a notable unidirectional regenerator.
Starfish that use this method are capable of regenerating multiple lost limbs from a disk containing half or more of the original starfish.
Once again, this is the work of stem cells. As we’ve explored, stem cells are cells that can take on many different forms. You can think of them as cells that haven’t quite decided what they wanted to be until that moment.
The starfish sends specific signals that stimulate the production of stem cells to create new arms.
Ah, chimps. Our endangered tree-dwelling cousins.
Being so closely related to us humans, chimps have a somewhat similar immune system to our own. It’s powerful and very effective against fighting pathogens. However, they can still succumb to the same infections as humans, such as Ebola, HIV and cancer.
However, there is another reason as to why chimps are speedy healers. They use nature to heal. Or, if you want to get more sciency, they exhibit zoopharmacognosy.
Zoopharmacognosy is a behavior in which non-human animals, such as primates, self-medicate by ingesting or applying plants, insects, and even psychoactive drugs, to prevent or reduce the harmful effects of pathogens.
Studies on chimps have identified that they select plants with high antioxidant and antibiotic properties.
One of the most sought after medicinal plants for chimps are the leaves of the Aspillia plant. These leaves are packed full of the antibiotic compound, thiarubrine-A, that has been found to kill parasitic nematodes that can be found in the intestines.
Researchers have observed that the chimps roll the leaves into a capsule-like shape and swallow them whole. Alongside the chimps’ stomach acid, the chemicals within the leaves work quickly to expel any internal parasites, promoting fast healing.
However, chimps not only ingest the leaves of the Aspillia plant. They have been found to apply the leaves topically to wounds or stings to prevent bleeding and infections.
Working together with nature, chimps, and other primates, have exploited a medicinal world to speed up healing.
Superpowers, as it turns out, are real.
Yes, animals may not have x-ray vision or telepathy (although I’m sure future scientific studies may dispute this), however, this isn’t to say they don’t have superpowers.
Many animals are able to heal themselves quickly after trauma, using the powers of their immune system. Ostriches and dolphins use a series of antibiotics to fight pathogens or predation.
Other animals, such as lizards, are capable of healing self-inflicted wounds, all in the name of escaping predators.
Other animals work closely with nature, by rubbing or ingesting plant matter to speed up their recovery.
Whatever method these animals choose, one thing is for certain: us humans have a lot to learn from animals. The way they are able to heal themselves fast could help our own species fight deadly diseases such as MRSA, AIDS or cancer .