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Studying Lung Mechanics in Marine Mammals

How does the respiratory system work in marine mammals? That’s just one of the questions that Texas A&M University Corpus Christi Research Specialist Andreas Fahlman, Ph.D, hopes to answer by collaborating with The Marine Mammal Center on a project to study lung mechanics in marine mammals.

July 2, 2013

Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at the Center, (left) works with Andreas Fahlman (right) to prepare an anesthetized northern fur seal to be part of Fahlman’s research project.
© Ingrid Overgard – The Marine Mammal Center.

Working with The Marine Mammal Center, Andreas Fahlman is investigating the mechanical properties of the respiratory system in different species of seals and sea lions. Patients at the Center that are already going to be anesthetized for a variety of other reasons unrelated to the study are the ideal candidates for this research - for example, an elephant seal pup that requires x-rays to evaluate whether he has any broken bones, or a sea lion that needs an electrocardiogram to see if her heart is working correctly.

Fully anesthetized, a northern fur seal patient named Ziggy Star is ready for her procedure to begin. © Ingrid Overgard – The Marine Mammal Center.

Studying the lung mechanics in marine mammals is part of a greater effort to better understand how diving marine mammals hold their breath and if and when they might be affected by decompression sickness. Human divers can experience decompression sickness if nitrogen levels in their body become elevated, generally from surfacing too fast (you may know this as the “bends”).

Fahlman is investigating when and how lungs collapse in marine mammals and if breath-hold diving animals ever experience nitrogen levels that could result in decompression sickness. While the patient is under anesthesia, the respiratory volumes and pressures will be measured continually while the animal takes some normal breaths. The Center’s veterinarian will then give different volumes of air to the intubated patient to simulate diving and again the respiratory volumes and pressure will be recorded.

Fahlman’s specialized equipment has been designed to fit into an ordinary cooler and is battery powered so he can perform his tests in a hospital or field setting. © Ingrid Overgard – The Marine Mammal Center

This collaborative effort is a three-year project that will increase the general knowledge of how marine mammal lungs work and how they differ among species.

Just a few years ago, The Marine Mammal Center treated a California sea lion patient thought to be the first known living pinniped with gas bubble formation in the brain. And while our veterinarian thought we would never see another case like this, shortly afterwards we got another one!

Scientific papers have been published on both cases and can be accessed from our website using these links:


Gas bubble disease in the brain of a living California sea lion (Zalophus californianus)

Evidence of injury caused by gas bubbles in a live marine mammal: barotrauma in a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus)

Research is integral to the work of The Marine Mammal Center and this is just one of many ongoing projects. Our patients contribute to these projects and to a growing body of scientific knowledge. However, there are strict protocols in place to ensure that all animals included in research projects are treated well and not harmed.

The Marine Mammal Center’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) reviews all research proposals involving live animals at the Center. Members of the committee evaluate each proposal for a number of points but the utmost consideration is given to the health and well-being of each animal that will be a part of a research project.

The lung mechanics in marine mammals project has been approved by the Center’s IACUC.


Learn about Sea Lions.

Read about Sarow the sea lion - another "bubble mystery"

Read our Science Publications.

Learn more about our work at Marine Science Sundays.


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