Volume density and distribution of mitochondria in harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) skeletal muscle.
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Recent studies have shown that harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) have an increased skeletal muscle mitochondrial volume density that may be an adaptation for maintaining aerobic metabolism during diving. However, these studies were based on single samples taken from locomotory muscles. In this study, we took multiple samples from a transverse section of the epaxial (primary locomotory) muscles and single samples from the m. pectoralis (secondary locomotory) muscle of five wild harbor seals. Average mitochondrial volume density of the epaxial muscles was 5.6%, which was 36.6% higher than predicted for a terrestrial mammal of similar mass, and most (82.1%) of the mitochondria were interfibrillar, unlike athletic terrestrial mammals. In the epaxial muscles, the total mitochondrial volume density was significantly greater in samples collected from the deep (6.0%) compared with superficial (5.0%) regions. Volume density of mitochondria in the pectoralis muscle was similar (5.2%) to that of the epaxial muscles. Taken together, these adaptations reduce the intracellular distance between mitochondria and oxymyoglobin and increase the mitochondrial diffusion surface area. This, in combination with elevated myoglobin concentrations, potentially increases the rate of oxygen diffusion into mitochondria and prevents diffusion limitation so that aerobic metabolism can be maintained under low oxygen partial pressure that develops during diving.