Michael Zasloff, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) and former Dean of Research explained the dolphin healing process by synthesizing scattered reports of known aspects of dolphin biology.
For example, he proposed that the same diving mechanism (diving reflex) that diverts blood from the periphery of the body during a dolphin's deep plunge down in water depths also could be triggered after an injury. Less blood at the body's surface means less blood loss.
As for pain, Zasloff's review suggested that the dolphin's apparent indifference "clearly represents an adaptation favourable for survival." Still, he said, the neurological and physiological mechanisms engaged to reduce pain remain unknown.
Despite gaping wounds and deep flesh tears, those who observe dolphins following shark bites have not noted significant rates of infection. Zasloff said it's likely that the animal's blubber holds key answers.
"It's most likely that the dolphin stores its own antimicrobial compound and releases it when an injury occurs," Zasloff said.
"This action could control and prevent microbial infection while at the same time prevent decomposition around the animal's injury," added Zasloff.
Finally, Zasloff explored the ability of the dolphin's wound to heal in a way that restores the dolphin's body contour. He said that the dolphin's healing ability is less like human healing and more like regeneration.
"The repair of a gaping wound to an appearance that is near normal requires the ability of the injured animal to knit newly formed tissues with the existing fabric of adipocytes, collagen and elastic fibers," he explained.
"The dolphin's healing is similar to how mammalian fetuses are able to heal in the womb," he added.
"My hope is this work will stimulate research that will benefit humans," he said.
"I feel reasonably certain that within this animal's healing wounds we will find novel antimicrobial agents as well as potent analgesic compounds," he added.
The study has been published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.