Adaptations to diving hypoxia in the heart, kidneys and splanchnic organs of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) Academic Article uri icon


  • Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) have an elevated mitochondrial volume density [VV(mt)] and elevated citrate synthase (CS) and beta-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase (HOAD) activities in their swimming muscles to maintain an aerobic, fat-based metabolism during diving. The goal of this study was to determine whether the heart, kidneys and splanchnic organs have an elevated VV(mt) and CS and HOAD activities as parallel adaptations for sustaining aerobic metabolism and normal function during hypoxia in harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). Samples of heart, liver, kidney, stomach and small intestine were taken from 10 freshly killed harbor seals and fixed in glutaraldehyde for transmission electron microscopy or frozen in liquid nitrogen for enzymatic analysis. Samples from dogs and rats were used for comparison. Within the harbor seal, the liver and stomach had the highest VV(mt). The liver also had the highest CS activity. The kidneys and heart had the highest HOAD activities, and the liver and heart had the highest lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activities. Mitochondrial volume densities scaled to tissue-specific resting metabolic rate [VV(mt)/RMR] in the heart, liver, kidneys, stomach and small intestine of harbor seals were elevated (range 1.2-6.6x) when compared with those in the dog and/or rat. In addition, HOAD activity scaled to tissue-specific RMR in the heart and liver of harbor seals was elevated compared with that in the dog and rat (3.2x and 6.2x in the heart and 8.5x and 5.5x in the liver, respectively). These data suggest that organs such as the liver, kidneys and stomach possess a heightened ability for aerobic, fat-based metabolism during hypoxia associated with routine diving. However, a heightened LDH activity in the heart and liver indicates an adaptation for the anaerobic production of ATP on dives that exceed the animal's aerobic dive limit. Hence, the heart, liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal organs of harbor seals exhibit adaptations that promote an aerobic, fat-based metabolism under hypoxic conditions but can provide ATP anaerobically if required.

author list (cited authors)

  • Fuson, A. L., Cowan, D. F., Kanatous, S. B., Polasek, L. K., & Davis, R. W.

citation count

  • 21

publication date

  • November 2003