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Penguins continue diving long after muscles run out of oxygen
Date:5/11/2011

Breathing heavily at the edge of an ice hole, an Antarctic emperor penguin prepares to dive. Taking a last gulp of air, the bird descends and may not emerge again for another 20 minutes. The penguin initially carries sufficient oxygen in three stores the blood, lungs and myoglobin in muscle to sustain aerobic metabolism. However, around 5.6 minutes after leaving the surface, lactate begins appearing in the penguin's blood and the bird crosses the so-called 'aerobic dive limit', switching to anaerobic metabolism in some tissues. So what triggers this transition?

Cassondra Williams from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography explains that the animals were thought to cross the aerobic dive limit when one of their three oxygen stores became exhausted. However, when Paul Ponganis measured oxygen levels in the blood and lungs of penguins after long dives, the animals had oxygen to spare. That only left the muscle as the potential trigger. Williams explains that diving animals were thought to isolate their muscle from the circulatory system, leaving oxygen stored in the tissue as its only source of aerobic metabolism while submerged and forcing it to switch to anaerobic respiration once the supply was exhausted. So, she and Ponganis teamed up with Jessica Meir to travel to Antarctica to measure muscle oxygen levels in diving emperor penguin muscles and they publish their discovery that depleted muscle oxygen supplies trigger the aerobic dive limit in The Journal of Experimental Biology at http://jeb.biologists.org/content/214/11/1802.abstract.

However, before their departure, Williams had to design a near-infrared spectrophotometer to record the penguins' muscle oxygen stores as they dived in the wild. After two trying years of technical development and testing, Williams was able to travel south with her colleagues to surgically implant the spectrophotometers in the pector
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Contact: Kathryn Knight
kathryn@biologists.com
44-787-634-4333
The Company of Biologists
Source:Eurekalert

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