We in the human race have long seen ourselves as the most advanced species on the planet, perhaps because of our intelligence, our ability to communicate, and our capability to manage the environments that we live in.
But, as Professor Craig Franklin of the University of Queensland has found through his research, there are species in the animal kingdom whose physiologies are, in certain aspects, far more advanced than our own.
Craig is an animal ecophysiologist and zoologist, and alongside his research at the University of Queensland, he is also Director of Research for the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, a wetland conversation area of 135,000 hectares on Australia’s Cape York.
Steve Irwin achieved international fame as a conservationist and wildlife expert before he tragically passed away as the result of a stingray injury at the age of 44.
At the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, Craig’s team, alongside Steve Irwin’s daughter Bindi and the rest of the family, has undertaken arguably the longest and largest tracking programme of its type anywhere in the world, monitoring the locations and body temperatures of over 150 crocodiles.
“We’ve been surgically inserting transmitters into the crocodiles, and today have over five million individual recordings from our 150 animals – a really impressive amount of data.
“The reason that we measure the crocodiles’ body temperature is that it governs, to a major extent, the physiology of organisms, from how they move to how they process food and how long they can stay underwater.
“Where we have made some large advances is the understanding of body temperature patterns. It is quite surprising that in the tropical river system in which we are working, the crocodiles’ body temperatures conform to their aquatic environment – it mimics the temperature of the water.
“That goes against the paradigm for crocodiles in that they bask and warm up. That doesn’t seem to be the case with our animals.
“We have had some beautiful results that show that a small increase in water temperature has a huge impact on the crocodiles’ ability to hold their breath underwater. We’ve seen crocodiles dive for up to seven hours at a time.”
This is just one example of Professor Franklin’s studies into how life evolves to meet the physiological challenges associated with extreme environmental conditions. One species that shows remarkable adaptation to an environment humans would consider hostile is the green-striped burrowing frog, an amphibian which survives in the arid Australian desert despite having a permeable skin. Professor Franklin explains how this is achieved:
“They are an amazing group of animals which can remain underground, entombed in clay burrows, wrapped in a mucous cocoon, for years at a time in between rainfall. They are completely immobile and inactive and enter a state of dormancy called aestivation. What is remarkable is that when the rain does come, their muscles haven’t wasted away, despite not having fed or used their muscles for the long period of dormancy.
“Our interest is in how the frogs prevent muscle wasting, or muscle-disuse atrophy. This is of huge significance to human medicine because of its implications on the treatment of patients in casts, or those who are bed-bound for months at a time.
“In space, in a micro-gravity environment, an astronaut’s muscles waste away quite dramatically, yet these frogs have solved that problem.
“I think that looking at mechanisms such as the frogs’ defence against muscle disuse atrophy, and working out which genes are turned on and off, could have an impact on medicine in the future.
“I am a zoologist and from my perspective, I want to present this type of information to a biomedical or medical audience because I think that when two fields come together, we can create synergism. It is often serendipity that allows us to make big advances in science.”
Professor Franklin will be presenting his findings on these incredible adaptations to the World Extreme Medicine Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland on 19 November 2016.
Mark Hannaford, founder of conference organisers World Extreme Medicine, said, “Craig Franklin is the embodiment of what the World Extreme Medicine Conference is about: experts from a wide variety of fields sharing knowledge and information in the hope that their expertise could help someone in a totally different field.
“World Extreme Medicine was founded around a campfire in Namibia, and we coined the phrase ‘World Extreme Medicine’ as an umbrella term for all practices of medicine outside of a clinical environment, whether it is prehospital, disaster and humanitarian, endurance, sport, expedition or wilderness medicine.
“Our message is that there is a great diversity of careers in medicine, and that traditional hospital environments are not the only option for a fulfilling career. To put it into a layperson’s terms, there’s never been a more exciting time to work in medicine.”
For further information about the World Extreme Medicine Conference and Expo, which takes place 18 – 21 November 2016, please visit: http://www.extrememedicineexpo.com/events/event/extreme-medi… . Alternatively, see a message transmitted from the International Space Station by astronaut Kate Rubins to the event organisers here: https://vimeo.com/184097597
About the World Extreme Medicine Conference & Expo
Location: Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS
Dates: Friday November 18 to Monday November 21
Ticket information: http://www.extrememedicineexpo.com/events/event/extreme-medi…
Prices from £124.17 (for one day) to £825.00 (for all four days) excluding VAT
Videos: Being a Doctor Just Became the Most Exciting Career https://vimeo.com/170846844
Extreme and Wilderness Medicine – Our Story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhPrFGFIFXI