We know many animals have abilities we don’t. We don’t tend to think of them as "super;" they’re just different. But what if they could become human abilities? What if some humans already have them?In my (R)evolution novels (Gemsigns, Binary and Gillung) it’s important for the abilities engineered into gems (genetically modified humans) to feel plausible; I didn’t want any gem to be able to do something that hasn’t already been documented in a living creature somewhere on this planet. But their abilities still needed to be, well, super. Turns out this wasn’t as difficult as I feared. I found out some amazing stuff during my research – including the existence of real-life human mutants. Here are six of my of favorite superpower factoids.
Bioelectrogenesis: Electric eels (which are more closely related to catfish than true eels) can generate both low and high voltage electrical charges, using special organs that take up more than three quarters of their body. An adult eel can deliver a shock of up to 500 volts and 1 amp of current – probably not enough to kill an adult human, but you wouldn’t want to test it.
Biosonar: Okay, you already know about the sophisticated echolocation systems of bats and dolphins. But did you know some humans have also developed a form of sonar? There’ve been documented cases of people who have lost their sight learning to navigate by emitting clicking sounds and building up a picture of their environment from the echoes that come back. We’re not talking Daredevil yet, but it may only be a matter of time…
Electroreception: Sharks have specialised organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini that enable them to sense the electromagnetic fields produced by other living things. They use it to find prey, and possibly to navigate by detecting the movement of ocean currents through the Earth’s magnetic field. Talk about being able to sense the planet.
Sight: We come out pretty well on this one. Human vision is astonishing – few other animals can see as many colours as we can, to say nothing of our ability to focus on tiny details up close, and see clearly far into the distance. But we don’t see everything. Consider the mantis shrimp, which has trinocular vision (we’re binocular), at least twelve photoreceptors (we have three), and the ability to perceive polarised light. It’s almost impossible to imagine what it ‘sees’, but it’s more than we do. Closer to home, cats and dogs have the kind of night vision that means they aren’t likely to bang into the coffee table while mounting a midnight raid on the kitchen. No animal can see in complete darkness – sight is a function of light – but they can decipher detail in light levels that are imperceptible to humans. They’re also great at focusing on fast-moving objects, such as fleeing prey, and – along with some other mammals, and many birds and insects – can see ultraviolet (UV) light.
Smell. You probably think I’m going to talk about dogs again, and it’s true that their olfactory sense is several hundred thousand times greater than ours. But bears are even better – a polar bear can smell a seal buried under three feet of snow from half a mile away. Some sharks can detect blood at one part per million. And if we get away from noses entirely, the antennae of some male luna moths can detect a single molecule of a female’s sex pheromone at a distance of more than six miles.
Strength: This is the closest thing to an X-Men moment you’re going to get from me – and it’s pretty darn close. There have been at least two documented cases of a mutation in humans that triggers accelerated muscle growth and extraordinary strength right from birth; it happens when both copies of a myostatin-producing gene are defective, is extremely rare, and no one knows what the long term health consequences are. Having said that…the child in whom the mutation was first identified could, at age four, hold two 6.6 lb weights with his arms extended. That’s the equivalent of 3 litres of water. In each hand.