Can diving-induced tissue nitrogen supersaturation increase the chance of acoustically driven bubble growth in marine mammals?

J Theor Biol. 2001 Nov 21;213(2):183-95. doi: 10.1006/jtbi.2001.2415.


The potential for acoustically mediated causes of stranding in cetaceans (whales and dolphins) is of increasing concern given recent stranding events associated with anthropogenic acoustic activity. We examine a potentially debilitating non-auditory mechanism called rectified diffusion. Rectified diffusion causes gas bubble growth, which in an insonified animal may produce emboli, tissue separation and high, localized pressure in nervous tissue. Using the results of a dolphin dive study and a model of rectified diffusion for low-frequency exposure, we demonstrate that the diving behavior of cetaceans prior to an intense acoustic exposure may increase the chance of rectified diffusion. Specifically, deep diving and slow ascent/descent speed contributes to increased gas-tissue saturation, a condition that amplifies the likelihood of rectified diffusion. The depth of lung collapse limits nitrogen uptake per dive and the surface interval duration influences the amount of nitrogen washout from tissues between dives. Model results suggest that low-frequency rectified diffusion models need to be advanced, that the diving behavior of marine mammals of concern needs to be investigated to identify at-risk animals, and that more intensive studies of gas dynamics within diving marine mammals should be undertaken.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cetacea / physiology*
  • Diffusion
  • Diving / physiology*
  • Lung / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Sound / adverse effects*


  • Nitrogen