Common themes of adaptation to hypoxia. Insights from comparative physiology

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2001;502:153-67. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-3401-0_11.


Many vertebrate animals have superior tolerance to environmental hypoxia compared to humans. For example, turtles tolerate an environment of 100% N2 for several hours, without apparent ill effect. This hypoxia tolerance is not limited to heterotherms, as some species of marine mammals, such as the northern elephant seal, may voluntarily dive for periods of up to 2 hours. Torpid bats exhibit prolonged periods of apnea and passive diffusion of oxygen down their trachea through an open glottis supplies a significant amount of the oxygen uptake. The Ruppell's griffon holds the known avian record of flight at 11,278 m, and other birds regularly migrate at altitudes over 8000m. These animals exhibit diverse adaptations for tolerating their hypoxic environment, many of which are poorly understood. Some of theses strategies include 1) the ability to lower metabolic rate when exposed to hypoxia 2) the ability to recruit alternate biochemical pathways for energy production 3) a left shifted oxy-hemoglobin dissociation curve 4) more efficient pulmonary gas exchange 5) the ability to alter blood flow distribution under hypoxic stress. Although there are common themes of animal adaptation to hypoxic stress, many animal solutions are unique.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / metabolism
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Physiology, Comparative


  • Oxygen