So, how did I wind up researching lycanthrope (Human to Wolf transformation)?
It was late one night and I was watching “Back to the Future.” You know the movie where Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) goes back in time accidentally and has to avoid kissing his mom, help his parents fall in love, and get back to the future with the help of Doc (Christopher Lloyd). One of the fun movies of the 80’s, go watch it, again. But, what does that movie have to do with therianthropy (what the heck is therianthropy: its a human that can shape shifting into another animal)—nothing, but thinking about 80s movies and Michael J Fox, you know where I’m going—Teen Wolf. I started thinking about how fast he changed into a wolf and that was the first step down the rabbit hole into the science of lycanthrope.
There are a lot of stories where humans shapeshift into another animal, usually controlled by the lunar cycle (one of my favorites is the book trilogy series The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan), a curse or potion. Early sources (wiki) for belief in this ability or affliction, called lycanthropy (Greek orgin) are Petronius (27–66) and Gervase of Tilbury (1150–1228). The term werewolf is from Old English folklore (werwulf, "man-wolf”). An even earlier potential reference is the Epic of Gilgamesh (~2100 BC).
I was surprised at all the animals that humans can supposedly shapeshift into, it included werewolves (probably the most common)—but I also came across references to werebears, werecats, werehyenas, weresharks (I’d love to see stories with weresharks in them), werecyotes, werejaguars, and even wererabbits (I’m looking at you Wallace and Gromit). But, I started thinking about the process of a human turning into a another animal. You know how the story goes—The clouds part, that hot white full moon shines bright—gooseflesh, intestinal cramping, fetal position, guttural groans and minutes later human is now a—Hold up, all that happens in minutes—let’s rewind this story a bit and think about the timing of this whole human to animal thing (and yes, I’m ignoring the 800 pound were-elephant sliding down another rabbit hole and using some “handwavium”—tada— humans can shapeshift).
Thinking about werewolves, I realized that I’d have to create two categories of transformation, 1) were-full; and 2) were-lite. Were-full I define as complete transformation (think American Werewolf in London or Curse of the Wererabbit—More animal features than human). Were-lite is a partial transformation (think Teen Wolf or the 1941 classic The Wolf Man—more human features than animal).
Let’s get back to the scene. A human is probably doing something they shouldn’t and is cursed or bit or poisoned, or finds themselves in the middle of a B-horror film, and now they have the ability/curse to shapeshift into a wolf. But, can the transformation really happen in seconds or minutes (comparative anatomy between human and wolf)? I mean you go from a few rays of moon light to basketball dominating wolf in a few minutes—So, is that right? Could a human shapeshifter into another animal in minutes?
Let’s take a deep breath and a step back, look away from the moon, and think about animals that actually undergo metamorphosis.
According to Oxford metamorphosis is the process of transformation from an immature form to and adult—or a change of form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one—That’s our stop, but first let’s look at actual examples of metamorphosis and the timing of things.
Here are a few examples you may be familiar with:
1) Tadpoles to Frogs 12-16 weeks
2) Fruit Fly pupal stage to fly 6 days
3) Caterpillar to Butterfly 9-14 days
So, it takes days to weeks for animals to completely transform itself into another form. Not looking good for were-full human transformation in minutes, but what about were-lite. Just a lot of hair, a little bone restructuring, long razor nails, some sharp teeth, and a deep growl. Did you just growl a little in your head?
Fingernails grow at an average rate of 3.47 millimeters (mm) per month, or about a tenth of a millimeter per day. To put this in perspective, the average grain of short rice is about 5.5 mm long. If you happen to lose a fingernail, it may take up to six months for that nail to completely grow back.
The American Academy of Dermatology website says that hair grows about 1/2 inch per month on average. That's a grand total of about 6 inches per year for the hair on your head, or the chiny-chin of your favorite cute and cuddly wolf-person.
A broken bone and surrounding soft tissue takes 6-8 weeks to heal. And teeth, well that’s a little harder to bite into. I was at my dentist and asked about teeth growth rates. After we got past the “what the heck, Jotham?” look, my dentist estimated that it would take 2-14 years for a full set of teeth to replace your current teeth (baby teeth to permanent teeth), but it takes ~6 months for a tooth to erupt and fully come in.
So, running all this data through the “handwavium” algorithm, it looks like we can get down to ~6 months for wolf-lite—go a little bit without trimming the beard, don’t clip those nails, buy a few teething rings, and a little bone reorganization (Got Milk). But we still have a couple hundred thousand minutes to drop if we want to get close to that minute or so transformation benchmark.
Okay, let’s duck under the clouds and find a silver lining—maybe we can speed up metabolism and make things go faster?
What is metabolism you ask? Oxford says: Metabolism is the chemical reactions in the body's cells that changes food into energy. Our bodies need this energy to do everything from moving to thinking to growing. Sounds like the fire we need to light under our werewolf’s rear-end!
Okay, lets go back to those nature examples. Tadpoles eat everything they can before they start metamorphosis (Dr. Robert Denver study). Their metabolic rates (measured as oxygen consumption) increases 3-5 fold as they move through the various stages of metamorphosis. Likewise, caterpillars are also aggressive eaters building up a reserve of lipids to use during their metamorphosis (William E. Connor et. al. study)
While on the subject of caterpillars, here’s something teacher didn’t talk about in my 5th grade science class: The caterpillar actually digests themselves inside their chrysalis and the butterfly develops out of the fuel rich soup (that’s an image you will not shake for a while).
And to grow a new human, during pregnancy a woman needs to consume an additional ~340 calories in the 2nd trimester and ~450 additional calories in the 3rd trimester, and it takes 40 weeks. And if you are wondering wolf gestation is 8-10 weeks.
Well, this shines a new light on that John Landis phrase—“See You Next Wednesday”—He knew it takes time to go from human to wolf. If you look at the comparative anatomy, there are some major structural reorganization that needs to happen. And this may be why the lunar cycle is important, not because of moon light, but it may take a few lunar cycles for the transformation to occur.
Also werewolves have been greatly misunderstood, they need to eat a lot before the transformation (maybe a few thousand calories extra a day), and after they transform they are starving and need to start storing calories for the return trip to human. Only problem is werewolves haven’t mastered the art of ordering door dash.
So if we made the timing of transformation accurate, every werewolf movie or book would be reading/watching someone stuff there face gaining 100’s of pounds, then dissolving into a mess of dissolved human form and reforming out of the fuel rich soup. Throw in a nosey neighbor, a reluctant love interest, and a best friend roommate to help keep your cover and hunt down the cure—
So, after going down this research rabbit hole, I was still left with the original question, “Can a human transform into a werewolf in minutes?” Probably not, but with a little imagination we could fit it into the lunar cycle. I think exploring this time aspect of therianthropy would add an interesting element to the werewolf mythos. Yes, I admit it, I’m writing this story!
After closing the 20 tabs I had in Safari, I decided to go to bed and enjoy the fact that a socially awkward teenager had to become a wolf to discover his family secret, the meaning of friendship, and confidence in himself. A question occurred to me, would werewolves be allowed to play high school sports? Never mind, I don’t think that was the point of the movie ... Until next time!
Hope you enjoyed this little trip down my research rabbit hole, and will join me next time as I reveal the actual factual science in fiction.
Did I get something wrong ... right? Let me know, please Email
Question for you: Favorite 80’s move with questionable science? I have a few in mind, tell me yours and I’ll check it out. Who knows I may even follow it down the rabbit hole. Email.
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