Every organism breathes in and out. The oxygen is inhaled and in return carbon dioxide is exhaled. The oxygen is then used in various metabolic processes by our cells that generate energy in the form of ATP which is essential for the survival of living organisms. Organisms that live on land can easily get oxygen from the air but what about the organisms that live underwater, those organisms get oxygen which is dissolved in water.
Mammals that live underwater have some physiological adaptations to breathe or respire while diving continuously. Respiring underwater is not as easy as they face a lot of problems. Mammals are warm-blooded animals which is not an ideal condition to live in the deep-sea as the water is pretty much cold there. Moreover, their air-filled lungs can get crushed easily due to the pressure of hundreds of meters of height. Despite having so many of challenges, mammals somehow adapt themselves to thrive in such conditions underwater.
Pressure: Pressure increases with depth underwater. The deeper we go, the greater the pressure is. Fluid-filled tissues are not affected by pressure but the volume of air-filled spaces can get reduced immediately. Pressure can also result in an increased rate of dissolving of gases in the liquid portions of the blood and due to this, if a diving mammals try to return to the surface of the water by rising quickly, air bubbles can form by the dissolved gases in the blood vessels which leads to a condition called â€˜bendsâ€™ or â€˜decompression sicknessâ€™. This could be deadly for the diving mammals.
Oxygen consumption: Deeper regions underwater have less dissolved oxygen compared to the regions near the surface. Humans canâ€™t hold breathe for more than five minutes but marine mammals do so for a longer period like some mammals can hold breathe for up to 90 minutes.
Nitrogen narcosis: Nitrogen in the air is 70% but it doesnâ€™t get dissolved in the blood. However, under pressure in deep water, nitrogen can get dissolved in the blood of diving mammals and can be toxic which can even lead to death.
The cold ocean water: The water in deeper regions has a freezing temperature. Since mammals are warm-blooded they have to maintain a constant body temperature to survive in cold temperatures. The high heat capacity of water can remove heat from their bodies much faster compared to air.
Buoyancy: The air and fat in the tissues of mammals can make their bodies float i.e. buoyant, so to dive, they need to put a lot of effort.
Adaptations in diving mammals
Marine mammals have acquired several adaptations to respire and thrive underwater.
The lungs of marine mammals can collapse and easily inflate. They are long and tubular and have built-in protective rings that keep the valves open. Moreover, marine mammals exhale right before they start to dive. Their lungs are muscular and efficient and can exhale up to 90% of the air in their lungs, in a single breath.
The percentage of red blood cells in marine mammals is higher. Due to this, their blood is thick and viscous which makes it more adaptable to store oxygen. They have a high concentration of hemoglobin in the blood and myoglobin in the muscles. Both these molecules have a high affinity for oxygen and, the greater amount of oxygen is stored in their body tissues.
Mammals lower their heartbeat which enables them to survive for a longer period in a submerged state. This condition is known as Bradycardia and is triggered by contact of cold water to the nerves of the face.
Marine mammals avoid the problem of â€˜bendsâ€™ or â€˜decompression sicknessâ€™ by exhaling just before they start diving. There will be no air in the lungs and hence, no problem while diving.
There is an extensive network of blood vessels in marine mammals that feed into the brain and is called â€˜retia mirabiliaâ€™. It captures the air bubbles that form in the blood.
Exhaling just before diving also helps in reducing the problem of buoyancy in marine mammals. As the oxygen gets removed from the lungs, their lungs become negatively buoyant.
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