Returning on empty: extreme blood O-2 depletion underlies dive capacity of emperor penguins

Ponganis, PJ, Stockard TK, Meir JU, Williams CL, Ponganis KV, Van Dam RP, Howard R.  2007.  Returning on empty: extreme blood O-2 depletion underlies dive capacity of emperor penguins. Journal of Experimental Biology. 210:4279-4285.

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aerobic dive limit, aptenodytes-forsteri, blood gases, dive, emperor penguin, gas, hemoglobin, high-altitude, Hypoxemia, oxygen depletion, P-O2, respiratory properties, sea-ice, temperature, transport, weddell seals


Blood gas analyses from emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) at rest, and intravascular P-O2 profiles from free-diving birds were obtained in order to examine hypoxemic tolerance and utilization of the blood O-2 store during dives. Analysis of blood samples from penguins at rest revealed arterial P(O2)s and O-2 contents of 68 +/- 7 mmHg (1 mmHg= 133.3 Pa) and 22.5 +/- 1.3 ml O-2 dl(-1) (N= 3) and venous values of 41 +/- 10 mmHg and 17.4 +/- 2.9 ml O-2 dl(-1) (N= 9). Corresponding arterial and venous Hb saturations for a hemoglobin (Hb) concentration of 18 g dl(-1) were > 91% and 70%, respectively. Analysis of P-O2 profiles obtained from birds equipped with intravascular P-O2 electrodes and backpack recorders during dives revealed that (1) the decline of the final blood P-O2 of a dive in relation to dive duration was variable, (2) final venous P-O2 values spanned a 40-mmHg range at the previously measured aerobic dive limit (ADL; dive duration associated with onset of post-dive blood lactate accumulation), (3) final arterial, venous and previously measured air sac P-O2 values were indistinguishable in longer dives, and (4) final venous P-O2 values of longer dives were as low as 1-6 mmHg during dives. Although blood O-2 is not depleted at the ADL, nearly complete depletion of the blood O-2 store occurs in longer dives. This extreme hypoxemic tolerance, which would be catastrophic in many birds and mammals, necessitates biochemical and molecular adaptations, including a shift in the O-2-Hb dissociation curve of the emperor penguin in comparison to those of most birds. A relatively higher-affinity Hb is consistent with blood P-O2 values and O-2 contents of penguins at rest.