How Diving Mammals Stay Underwater for So Long

Researchers have discovered the secret to how champion divers like sperm whales can dive for an hour or more.

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Diving mammals, such as this Galapagos sea lion, evolved adaptations allowing them to stay underwater for prolonged periods of time.

Imagine holding your breath while chasing down a giant squid (Architeuthis dux)—multi-tentacled monsters wielding suckers lined with tiny teeth—in freezing cold water, all in the dark. That would take a lot out of anybody, yet sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) do this day in and day out.

The ability to dive underwater for extended periods is a specialized feat marine and aquatic mammals have evolved over millions of years. Diving mammals will slow their heart rate, stop their breathing, and shunt blood flow from their extremities to the brain, heart, and muscles when starting a dive. (Related: "Can Diving Mammals Avoid the Bends?")

But champion divers, such as elephant seals, can hold their breath for about two hours. "It was known that they rely on internal oxygen stores when they're down there," said Michael Berenbrink, a zoologist at the University of Liverpool, England, who specializes in how animals function.

But there was something else going on in the bodies of these animals that researchers were missing, until now.

So what's new? A study published June 13in the journal Science reports that diving mammals—including whales, seals, otters, and even beaversand muskrats—have positively charged oxygen-binding proteins, called myoglobin, in their muscles.

This positive characteristic allows the animals to pack much more myoglobin into their bodies than other mammals, such as humans—and enables diving mammals to keep a larger store of oxygen on which to draw while underwater.

Why is it important? Packing too many proteins together can be problematic, explained Berenbrink, a study...

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