How Whales Evolved to Dive Deeply

Jim Crocker
7th April, 2024

How Whales Evolved to Dive Deeply

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Whales and dolphins have evolved special lung features that protect them from decompression sickness (DCS)
  • Their lungs have more elastic fibers and thicker walls, which help control gas exchange and prevent nitrogen bubbles during surfacing
  • Understanding these adaptations may lead to better prevention and treatment of DCS in humans
Marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have long fascinated scientists with their remarkable ability to dive deep underwater for extended periods. Unlike humans, these cetaceans appear to be largely immune to decompression sickness (DCS), a condition that can afflict divers when they ascend too quickly from the depths of the ocean. Researchers from Nanjing Normal University have recently shed light on how these animals have evolved to avoid DCS, offering insights that could have implications for human diving[1]. Decompression sickness, also known as "the bends," occurs when dissolved gases, mainly nitrogen, form bubbles in the body as a person or animal ascends and the pressure decreases[2]. These bubbles can cause a range of symptoms, from joint pain and rashes to severe neurological and cardiac complications. For humans, the treatment for DCS involves breathing pure oxygen and undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy in a chamber where pressure can be controlled[2]. Despite these measures, some individuals can suffer long-term health effects. The study by Nanjing Normal University proposes that cetaceans have developed specific adaptations in their respiratory systems that protect them from DCS. Their lungs contain an abundance of elastic fibers and have thicker alveolar walls, which are the tiny air sacs where gas exchange occurs. During a dive, these alveoli can collapse in a controlled way, which is thought to reduce the exchange of nitrogen and thereby limit the amount of this gas that dissolves into the bloodstream. This process would effectively minimize the risk of bubble formation as the animals resurface. This evolutionary adaptation in cetaceans contrasts with what is seen in humans, who have not evolved such protective mechanisms. Human divers and those exposed to changes in ambient pressure, such as aviators and astronauts, are at risk of developing DCS[2]. The condition has been studied extensively, with a focus on understanding the pathophysiology and improving therapeutic strategies[3]. However, despite advances in treatment and prevention, significant gaps in knowledge remain, particularly concerning long-term effects and individual susceptibility. Interestingly, DCS is not exclusively a human concern. A rare case reported in breath-hold divers, who do not use breathing apparatus, showed that it is possible for even these divers to experience severe forms of DCS, including central nervous system involvement[4]. This highlights the complexity of the condition and the varying factors that can influence its development, such as dive profiles and surface intervals. The findings of the Nanjing Normal University study expand our understanding of how marine mammals have adapted to their environment and how these adaptations may serve as a natural defense against DCS. By studying the unique characteristics of cetacean lungs, scientists can explore new avenues for human DCS prevention and treatment. For example, understanding the mechanics of alveolar collapse and selective gas exchange in cetaceans could inspire novel approaches to human dive training or the development of new diving equipment that mimics these biological adaptations. In conclusion, the research into cetacean respiratory adaptations offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolutionary solutions to the challenges of deep-sea diving. While human divers cannot directly mimic the biological traits of whales and dolphins, the study of these marine mammals' unique physiology may eventually lead to improved safety measures for humans who venture beneath the waves. As we continue to push the boundaries of underwater exploration, the lessons learned from our aquatic counterparts could prove invaluable in protecting divers from the risks associated with decompression sickness.

GeneticsMarine BiologyEvolution


Main Study

1) Evolutionary genetics of pulmonary anatomical adaptations in deep-diving cetaceans

Published 4th April, 2024

Related Studies

3) Decompression and decompression sickness.

4) Breath-Hold Diving-Related Decompression Sickness with Brain Involvement: From Neuroimaging to Pathophysiology.

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