How Do Marine Mammals Hold Their Breath For So Long?

How Do Marine Mammals Hold Their Breath For So Long?

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We’re celebrating Earth’s oceans this week with a series of videos about the oceans. We’re not just talking about creatures with gills, though, we’re also talking about air-breathing animals that have adapted to living and hunting in the ocean because they are really good at holding their breath. Sperm Whales and Elephant Seals can stay underwater for an hour or two which is pretty impressive for marine mammals And the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale holds the mammalian title for longest recorded dive at 137 and a half minutes So what is going on in their bodies that make these long dives possible? We need oxygen to help our cells make energy, in a process that also makes carbon dioxide. When you have too much carbon dioxide in your body, it makes your blood more acidic which signals your brain to say “Hey, you need to get oxygen! Breathe now!” So when an animal like a human or whale breathes, the oxygen molecules in the air diffuse from the lungs into tiny blood vessels and bind to a protein inside your red blood cells called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin acts as a delivery truck in your body using the bloodstream as its highway to hand-off oxygen molecules to tissue cells or another protein called myoglobin in muscle cells. Myoglobin is basically extra oxygen storage for your muscles, because they need extra energy when they’re active And scientists think that myoglobin is what helps marine mammals hold their breath for so long. For one thing: These diving animals have more hemoglobin and myoglobin than humans, which means they can store more oxygen in their blood and muscles. When the oxygen bound to hemoglobin in their blood runs out, the myoglobin can release extra 02 back into the bloodstream. Plus, we think aquatic mammals have a higher tolerance to dissolved carbon dioxide in their blood, so there might be a less urgent ‘need-to-breathe’ instinct. And when the animal resurfaces to breathe and prep for another dive, the excess carbon dioxide dissolved in the blood and bound to hemoglobin is released and replaced with fresh oxygen. A 2013 study also found that these: specifically the ones that live on land. Too many myoglobin molecules tend to clump up together in the muscles, and in humans this can cause diseases. But if those molecules have strong asimilar surface charges, they repel each other instead. This means all the extra myoglobin molecules are free to store oxygen and help the animals stay underwater longer. And some animals have other oxygen-saving adaptations as well, like a lower heart rate, and restricted blood supply to tissues. Scientists are still trying to find even more adaptations and understand how they work together in different species to conserve oxygen during these long, deep dives. But if you’re waiting for the day when humans can stay underwater for hours without equipment, don’t hold your breath! [laughing] Thank you for asking, and thank you especially to Ecology Project International for sponsoring this episode. EPI is an international non-profit organization that works to improve and inspire science education and conservation efforts through student-scientist partnerships. EPI has recently become the steward of the Pacuare Nature Reserve in Costa Rica, which is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity and the 4th most important nesting beach for vulnerable leatherback sea turtles. To sustain the reserve and its majestic wildlife long into the future, EPI has launched an online fundraising campaign. You can help protect the thousands of species of flora and fauna that call Pacuare home Check out EPI’s fundraising campaign at

100 thoughts on “How Do Marine Mammals Hold Their Breath For So Long?”

  1. Cuvier's beaked whales also hold the record for deepest dive among mammals, 3km down which is just crazy.

    Whales are such amazing and beautiful creatures in every way, I am enraged that Japan's whale hunting is allowed by others.

  2. Happy World Ocean day. Learn about caring for our oceans and island earth by following the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule'a as she makes her historic voyage around the world. She was at the United Nations today. Mālama Honua.

  3. You should talk about the mammalian dive reflex in humans! I'm a freediver and this really interests me. I've been able to train myself to hold my breath for 6 minutes and some professionals can do 8 minutes or more.

  4. They also move far more of their lung capacity. Humans change about 10% of the air in their lungs with each breath and whales go to about 90% so they are getting rid of much more CO2 each time.

  5. New elements discovered after the formation of the Periodic table and what it means for our over-all understanding of the universe!!!

  6. Is it a plausible thing for whales to drown? I'm not talking about the obvious things like getting stuck in rubbish or something, but rather due to a lack of judgement in depth, or perhaps getting injured underwater or something. We see humans all the time dying from doing something overly ambitious, but does this happen to whales?

  7. @Scishow I saw an article in the New York Times today about gene drives and the controversy about them, and felt like it might be a good idea for a video covering them, if you were interested.

  8. They're getting close to the whole "humans breathing under water" thing, with something called the "Aquaman Particle". Look it up. It can store enormous amounts of oxygen in a minuscule amount of space, an example of which would be the oxygen content of an entire room being sucked into something the size of about a tablespoon. The problem that they're running into is that people aren't supposed to live on pure oxygen, and so until they find a way to absorb large amounts of nitrogen in a similar crystal they won't be able to make the mix of gases that we need. Still, they're getting close.

    … Also, that previous example sounds like a Bond villain trap. "I've left you in this sealed room with a small pile of Aquaman crystals hidden somewhere, and you must find them before there is no more oxygen to breath. [queue the villainous laughter and walking away to leave him to his untimely demise, which he will escape from]".

  9. Aarrgghh! Cringeworthy pun!

    But seriously, I'd be interested in whether or not similar adaptations occur in humans that have lived for many generations at high altitude, such as in the Andes. I know that the lungs of natives in such regions have larger lungs, but I wonder if any other adaptations similar to sea mammals might be present.

    Any chance of an episode exploring the possibility?

  10. When you said "vulnerable leatherback sea" I thought you were going to say vulnerable leatherback seats.

  11. you mentioned that aquatic mammalian blood possess positive charge that more or less spares them of certain diseases scene in terrestrial mammals (or at least that was the gist of that fact); my question is, could aquatic mammalian blood be used in a therapy for treatment of those diseases?

  12. Just like animal products make the human body's blood acidic which is deadly by definition. #Veganism4Life

  13. If the blood contains too much carbon dioxide and therefore become too acidic, wouldn't the brain tell the body to exhale, instead of inhale? Or are they both considered 'breathing'? Cause I think 'breathing' meant to inhale.

  14. I figured out why you sound annoying to me (I still watch the videos for the learning). Every new take you start the line off really quickly and loud, which then slows and quiets half way through. And then it starts back up again on the next take and line.

  15. Your face after that pun omg XD you looked like my nephew when he was still little and someone made a fart joke. Very cute haha

  16. I didn't need to watch this video but wanted to see if my lecturers research in to myoglobin charges got mentioned. Source number 6 wooo.

  17. that's an interesting video for sure but I would like to see an "add on" video about how marine mammals drink water. I know that its from their food but its seems like that is not enough water to sustain them.

  18. Longest a Human has held their breath underwater was 24 min 3.45 secs.
    Aleix Segura Vendrell (Spain), in Barcelona, Spain, on 28 February 2016.

    That's still pretty amazing!

  19. Could we potentially alter human DNA to adjust everything necessary to give the human the same breath holding traits as a whale?

  20. I just wanted to say…. good job on citing sources.

    A lot of YouTube channels don't do that. Which means in a debate, when I'm trying to prove something, I can't use any of those channels. Hell, I can't even trust anything they say, because, for all I know, everything they said could be completely made up. So thank you.

    Side note, I'm aware this is an old video.

  21. Marine mammals don’t hold their breath, they form into a state inbetween existence and nonexistance, thus not requiring air.

  22. This guy talks too fast. It's a shame because there's a lot of good information imparted – but the comprehension rate (regardless of intelligence) is practically zero because he talks like he's in a Geico commercial – and on crack and helium. What a bummer, I'll never go on this site again if I see this guy's face because if I want the answer to a question, I won't get it from him no matter how well-researched the answer is. I also blame it on the director of the video because she/he should have known that this dude was talking too fast for a normal person to understand a complex response to a complex question. And finally I blame the producer – who said I want an answer in under 2 minutes. It's not like we're wasting trees for paper here – you can take as long as you want to answer the question with no repercussions. In fact, you could stick in another ad for money. Overall – I'm disappointed that no one realized that this video is not a word race – it's teaching. And it's bad teaching right now.

  23. Mammalian dive reflex allows for long holds underwater. If humans we're in water all the time then we would become aquatic.

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