Applying biomimicry to female health and wellness, researchers are learning from other species how to better care for our own.

When the Los Angeles Zoo called me, as a cardiologist, to consult on animal patients in 2005, I recognized a parallel world in which other species face the same health challenges humans do––including heart disease, cancer, and mental illness. Pushing against the barriers between veterinary and human medicine, I took a new species-spanning approach to health that recognizes other animals as a powerful source of lifesaving insights for humans. This work became the basis for my book with naturalist and science writer Kathryn Bowers, Zoobiquity. Most recently, I’ve focused my attention on the usefulness of this technique for addressing key challenges in female health.

Female animals across the tree of life have evolved adaptations that protect them from diseases that claim the lives of millions of women every year. In my feature in the March 2023 Scientific American, I share my research on these connections:

I’ve published studies on ovarian cancer in flamingoes, pythons, fish and humans; hosted symposia on menstrual difficulties in great apes (including us), bats and tree shrews; and collaborated with dairy veterinarians who have deep knowledge of lactation in cows to help women with common breastfeeding problems. These experiences have transformed my understanding not only of my patients but of myself as a female. I’ve learned when it comes to certain aspects of my health, I may have more in common with other female animals than with my husband, brother, son or the other men in my life. I call the shared bond that links human and animal females the “sisterhood of species.”

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The legitimacy of this inter-species comparison stems from the fact that viewed across time, species are not truly different things entirely, but different variations on a shared ancestor, shaped by the conditions in which that individual's descendants have lived. 

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Populations consist of individuals that share many, but not all, traits. Changes to the conditions they face affect which individuals reproduce, which can eventually change the presence and balance of both helpful and irrelevant traits in the population as a whole.

One of the most exciting insights for human females is the athleticism of pregnant wild animals. Despite carrying sometimes hundreds of extra pounds, pregnant giraffes can still outrun predators––and pregnant predators can still chase down prey. The gestational athleticism of other female animals can be a wonderful source of insights for women’s health.

Rachel Carson (one of my scientific heroes) wrote that “in nature, nothing exists alone.” I specify that in nature, no female exists alone. Though women have been excluded from many medical research studies for generations, at great cost to their health, nature has essentially been conducting a much more inclusive global research project for hundreds of millions of years. The result is that those who study and work with other female animals hold knowledge that could yield major breakthroughs in health care and wellness management for women. It’s time to listen to them, and to learn from nature.

Read “The Sisterhood of Species” in the March 2023 Scientific American.

About the Author

Cardiologist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz is on faculty at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is a New York Times bestselling author of the book Zoobiquity (co-authored with Kathryn Bowers) and its follow-up, Wildhood.

The Collection

Explore the Biological Strategies below for a closer examination of some models from other species and ideas about how they could inform health and wellness approaches for humans. Think about your own health questions and possible models from other species as well.

Of course, this approach isn’t limited in its usefulness to dealing exclusively with women’s health. Across the board, doctors and others who treat ailing humans can learn much from the knowledge gained about other species by veterinary experts and others who work with and care for other animals.

This is a relatively new application of the principles of . If you have thoughts or feedback or would like to contribute to expanding this area of content on AskNature, contact us.