Hyperbaric computed tomographic measurement of lung compression in seals and dolphins. Academic Article uri icon


  • Lung compression of vertebrates as they dive poses anatomical and physiological challenges. There has been little direct observation of this. A harbor and a gray seal, a common dolphin and a harbor porpoise were each imaged post mortem under pressure using a radiolucent, fiberglass, water-filled pressure vessel rated to a depth equivalent of 170 m. The vessel was scanned using computed tomography (CT), and supported by a rail and counterweighted carriage magnetically linked to the CT table movement. As pressure increased, total buoyancy of the animals decreased and lung tissue CT attenuation increased, consistent with compression of air within the lower respiratory tract. Three-dimensional reconstructions of the external surface of the porpoise chest showed a marked contraction of the chest wall. Estimation of the volumes of different body compartments in the head and chest showed static values for all compartments except the lung, which showed a pressure-related compression. The depth of estimated lung compression ranged from 58 m in the gray seal with lungs inflated to 50% total lung capacity (TLC) to 133 m in the harbor porpoise with lungs at 100% TLC. These observations provide evidence for the possible behavior of gas within the chest of a live, diving mammal. The estimated depths of full compression of the lungs exceeds previous indirect estimates of the depth at which gas exchange ceases, and concurs with pulmonary shunt measurements. If these results are representative for living animals, they might suggest a potential for decompression sickness in diving mammals.

publication date

  • July 15, 2011