If you’re looking for miracles, you don’t need to look too far (and no, we’re not referring to Insane Clown Posse’s horrific 2009 music video). Evolution has given us plenty of superpowered animals, from miraculous marsupials to regenerative rodents and virgin shark mothers.
And if that last sentence didn’t pique your interest, maybe this will: Scientists are working to give us some of these animals’ abilities. Humans, after all, share substantial genetic similarities with animals, and as gene therapy becomes a more viable strategy for treating everything from brain diseases to leukemia, researchers are looking closely at the animal kingdom for possible leads.
We looked into a few of the most interesting examples of mind-blowing animal abilities—and tried to figure out how humans could eventually benefit.
1. Certain animals can produce “virgin birth” offspring.
Just go with us on this for a minute: Let’s say you’re a female shark. You need to reproduce, but there aren’t any male sharks around. You look around for a while, maybe devour a few penguins, then come to the logical decision.
Fine, you think to yourself, presumably in some sort of shark language, I’ll just have this kid myself. Then…well, you do exactly that.
Certain animals are capable of this exact process (without the internal dialogue). It’s called parthenogenesis, and it’s one of nature’s weirder tricks.
One of the more famous examples happened in 2016, when a captive zebra shark produced three pups in an Australian aquarium. At first, her keepers assumed she’d stored some sperm from her time in the wild—something sharks are known to do—but they eventually determined that she had given birth entirely on her own.
“The majority of animal species do not reproduce via parthenogenesis, but parthenogenesis is extremely common among species of some kinds of animals,” James Hanken, professor of biology at Harvard University’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, tells Urbo.
In fact, some animals reproduce almost exclusively through virgin births.
“For example, many species of whiptail lizards of the American Southwest reproduce only via parthenogenesis,” Hanken explains. “They are all-female species, and sexual reproduction is only possible if one of these females were to mate with a male of a different species (which happens occasionally).”
In most other cases, animals resort to parthenogenesis when they simply don’t have access to a male. Scientists aren’t entirely sure how often that happens, simply because it’s a hard thing to measure.
“It can be hard to document facultative parthenogenesis in the wild because you usually don’t know the mating history of a given female, and so you can’t prove that she gave birth without earlier mating with a male,” Hanken says. “Hence, many instances of parthenogenesis are documented among animals in captivity, e.g., in zoos, when it is known that a given female did not mate in her lifetime and still she reproduced.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to reproducing without a male (am I right, ladies?). Half the genetic material generally means more vulnerabilities—genetic diversity, after all, is generally a good thing.
Can humans take advantage?
We’re not exactly sure why humans would want to take advantage of parthenogenesis, but we had to ask Hanken if it was a possibility.
“Basically no, or at least not naturally,” he says. “Successful reproduction via parthenogenesis is not seen in any living species of bird or mammal, and there are very good physiological and developmental reasons why this is so.”
That’s not to say that parthenogenesis is a scientific impossibility, but it would require a lot of tinkering with our genetic code.
“There have been a small number of cases in which parthenogenesis was achieved in mice in the laboratory, but this required various experimental procedures and interventions to make it happen, and nearly all of the embryos died before term,” Hanken says.
That’s a bummer, but for the time being, we’re fine with leaving the virgin births to the sharks, snakes, and lizards of the world.
2. Opossums are immune to snake venom (and many diseases).
Sure, they’ve got gross rat tails and hang out in trash cans, but opossums have their redeeming qualities. For starters, they’re North America’s only marsupial, and, according to an article in Popular Science, they’re largely unchanged by evolution (even if they’re the most recent marsupial to evolve).
Of course, they’re also fairly stupid, and when confronted with danger, the stimulation forces them into a near-coma state. They’re not so much “playing possum” as “literally paralyzed with fear,” and while they’re out cold, they emit a foul-smelling odor that drives off some potential predators. Eventually, they wake up, immediately forget about the entire exchange, and start eating trash again. They’re basically the Keith Richards of the animal kingdom.
But for our money, the coolest thing about opossums is that they’re practically immune to snake bites thanks to a serum protein that neutralizes venom on contact. The critters also have a low body temperature, which, according to the wonderfully named Opossum Society of the United States, makes them resistant to a number of diseases, including rabies.
Can humans take advantage?
Potentially. Currently, researchers are studying opossums to look for new ways of treating human snakebite victims. We should note that squirrels and honey badgers also have some venom resistance (go ahead and make your “honey badger don’t care” jokes now).
The bad news is that snakes use a wide variety of toxins, and opossums probably can’t neutralize everything. Still, we might someday inject snakebite victims with opossum proteins, and if that doesn’t get you excited, you don’t love science.
3. The spiny mouse is basically Wolverine.
Granted, they don’t look much like Hugh Jackman, but spiny mice are pretty close to Wolverine in terms of abilities. Two spiny mouse species—Acomys kempi and Acomys percivali, in case you’re looking to do some deeper reading—have a unique defense against predators: They basically shed patches of their skin.
If a predator manages to bite down on the speedy little spiny mouse, the rodent simply jettisons a bit of its flesh, then regrows it later. While they’re not the only animal capable of regrowing lost tissues (some lizards, for instance, can regrow lost tails), spiny mice are the only mammal that can regenerate lost tissues to such an incredible extent. Scientists have observed the species regrowing fur, sweat glands, cartilage, hair follicles, and skin, all without significant scarring.
That’s pretty important since they’re also pretty adorable.
Can humans take advantage?
Potentially. According to the science journal Nature, researchers are trying to find ways to bring the same regenerative power to humans. That could greatly improve our ability to heal after major injuries.
Researchers believe spiny mice have the same basic regenerative ability as the aforementioned snakes and reptiles. At some point, evolution shut off that gene in mammals, but the rodents somehow escaped that fate.
“By looking at the common genetic blueprints that exist across vertebrates, we hope to find the ones that we could activate in humans,” Ashley Seifert, development biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told the journal. “We just need to figure out how to dial the process in mammals back to do something the entire system already knows how to do.”
4. Some jellyfish are biologically immortal.
Turritopsis dohrnii is better known as the immortal jellyfish since people aren’t always creative when they get around to naming animals. Unlike other jellyfish, they’re capable of reverting back to their polyp stage after achieving sexual maturity. That makes them, in theory, biologically immortal; they’ll never succumb to old age since they can just become juveniles again.
In practice, of course, they’re downright mortal. During their polyp stage, they’re more susceptible to disease and predation, which is probably a good thing—we wouldn’t want godlike jellyfish to take over the planet.
Can humans take advantage?
Some researchers believe we could treat some age-related illnesses with help from the T. dohrnii. While scientists are still studying the organism, it’s not an easy process because the jellyfish are difficult to keep in captivity.
How difficult, you ask? So difficult that one of the most well-known T. dohrnii researchers, Shin Kubota, has become relatively famous simply for working with the animals. That could eventually lead to some groundbreaking revelations, since humans are pretty genetically similar to jellyfish.
Oh, and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t mention that Kubota also dresses up in a weird tentacle hat and sings songs from the perspective of his jellyfish. No, we’re not kidding.
In case you can’t watch the video, here’s a sample of Kubota’s (absolutely incredible) lyrics:
“My name is T. dohrnii./I’m going to turn myself back into a polyp soon./I’m thinking about what I want to do this time around./I can age in reverse./I’m getting my energetic young body back, right now in 1, 2, 3./I can live my life over again./But since people only live once,/Please live without any regrets.”
We’re not saying the jellyfish have somehow taken over Kubota’s mind, but, well, that’s exactly what we’d expect an immortal cnidarian to do. Stay strong, Kubota. We’re sending help.