Dolphins are fast, powerful and acrobatic marine mammals and throughout their lifetime they will inevitably find themselves face to face with one of their main predators… sharks. The latest research has shown that up to 80% of Australian Dolphins have scarring or injuries resulting from a confrontation with sharks. The injuries can be truly concerning and should they have been inflicted on another creature the shock, blood loss and infection would be too much for survival. Incredibly, there have been cases around the world and within Australia where severe shark attack injuries have completely healed and the Dolphin has survived what would appear to be the impossible. The process of survival requires some very important elements that are truly remarkable and if the Dolphin can achieve the below they will have a chance of recovering from their injuries.
- Blood Loss
The moments after receiving the bite are most important to stop or prevent excessive blood loss. Dolphins and many other marine mammals will dive to great depths under circumstances where their lives may be at risk. The longest dive on record was 300 meters by a Bottlenose Dolphin and although generally most wild Dolphins will not need to dive to this depth they do have the capability. Racing to this depth the blood flow will go to where it is needed most, brain and vital organs which will assist in slowing or cutting off the blood flow to the wound site. A natural diving reflex like this and the ability to control blood flow may also be much stronger than we anticipate in Dolphins allowing them in some ways to control their blood flow to a wound site to prevent bleeding to death.
The main concern for any injury is most certainly infection, especially when you live in a marine environment which is host to some very powerful tiny organisms that could lead to massive infection of a wound site so large. Incredibly, it is believed that Dolphins have the ability to store and produce their very own antibiotics on standby for when they need them most! Blubber is known to be very protective and within hours of an attack a thin layer of blubber will protectively form over the wound to begin the healing process. Blubber also has high quantities of antimicrobial compounds which will assist in killing off any bad microorganisms that may begin to try and form in or around the wound site. Dolphins may also have the ability to save antibacterial properties they consume from their meals and instead of processing this, they will store it instead and carry their own antibiotics similar to how we eat foods containing high quantities of vitamin C when wanting to prevent a cold.
- Pain Management
Looking at an injury like the one above will have many of us wincing in pain, how on earth could a Dolphin even be able to move without excruciating pain paralysing them? Research on pain tolerance in Dolphins is very poorly known, but even after severe injuries Dolphins appear to not show signs of pain or distress after only a few days. The ability they have to control blood flow may also be similar to the ability they have in controlling pain responders to the wound site. A Dolphin that is in pain would show signs to predators close by of being an easier target which would minimise chances of survival even further. Appearing to move freely even with these painful injuries may assist in discouraging the approach of predators and help with keeping up with the pod. The question remains do Dolphins have the ability to mask pain symptoms or are they able to control pain receptors to the wound. Perhaps because Dolphins have been known to not move away or avoid contact with the wound site is an example of their ability to control their pain responders and continue to feed normally without a diminished appetite due to pain.
A few large hurdles need to be cleared for Dolphins to survive such severe attacks, but as we can see their bodies are designed to handle such situations. Blubber has a remarkable regenerative factor and within a couple of months the wound site can appear to be almost completely healed and back to how it once was before the attack. The sponge like structure of blubber and possible stem cell style structure allows the blubber to regenerate very quickly and even after terrible injuries the Dolphin can recover to show minimal scarring and no change to body shape or structure. A truly remarkable feat that is inspiring and we hope that as the years go on we may learn from our amazing Dolphins and perhaps understand better the healing process and if there are any possibilities of replicating this process for other animals and people who may also suffer from similar injuries.