Elephant seals breathe with their spleen

Yup, really. By storing oxygen in their spleen, elephant seals can dive to a depth of more than a mile and stay below for an hour or longer on a single breath. That's deeper than any other non-cetacean marine mammal.


The male elephant seal is best recognized by its odd trunk-like nose. Though truly a face only a mother could love, the flabby protrusion helps him to vocally assert his machismo to receptive females and challenger males. The female's big eyes and puppy-like faces are more pleasing to the eye (ours as well as those of the randy bulls), and female's are significantly smaller than males who can reach up to 16 feet in length and weigh in at over two and half tons.

During breeding season the males remain on land, without feeding, for up to 14 weeks. Throughout that time they battle, sometimes brutally, to defend their harem from other suiters. By the time they return to the water, they've shed up to one third of their body weight.

Elephant seals more typically feed at 1,000 to 2,000 feet, but their unique deep-diving ability allows them to feed on the fat-rich fish that dwell in the lower ocean if they need to. When they're hungry they can spend 24 hours a day repeatedly diving to 5,000 feet, surfacing for only a few minutes, and diving again.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how elephant seals manage their deep excursions. As they descend, their lungs collapse and oxygen is transferred to the spleen for storage. From there it's routed to the animal's muscles, heart and brain. During their deep dives they dramatically reduce their metabolic rate, and are believed to even enter a sleep-like state.

Imagine waking from a nap and staring into the tentacles of a giant squid? Cause for second thoughts when a midnight snack beckons, no?

KL

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