Hyperbaric tracheobronchial compression in cetaceans and pinnipeds.
Assessment of the compressibility of marine mammal airways at depth is crucial to understanding vital physiological processes such as gas exchange during diving. Very few studies have directly assessed changes in cetacean and pinniped tracheobronchial shape, and none have quantified changes in volume with increasing pressure. A harbor seal, gray seal, harp seal, harbor porpoise and common dolphin were imaged promptly post mortem via computed tomography in a radiolucent hyperbaric chamber. Volume reconstructions were performed of segments of the trachea and bronchi of the pinnipeds and bronchi of the cetaceans for each pressure treatment. All specimens examined demonstrated significant decreases in airway volume with increasing pressure, with those of the harbor seal and common dolphin nearing complete collapse at the highest pressures. The common dolphin bronchi demonstrated distinctly different compression dynamics between 50% and 100% lung inflation treatments, indicating the importance of air in maintaining patent airways, and collapse occurred caudally to cranially in the 50% treatment. Dynamics of the harbor seal and gray seal airways indicated that the trachea was less compliant than the bronchi. These findings indicate potential species-specific variability in airway compliance, and cessation of gas exchange may occur at greater depths than those predicted in models assuming rigid airways. This may potentially increase the likelihood of decompression sickness in these animals during diving.
Denk, M; Fahlman, A; Dennison-Gibby, S; Song, Z; Moore, M
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