Morphological evidence of marine adaptations in human kidneys

Med Hypotheses. 2006;66(2):247-57. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2005.09.024. Epub 2005 Nov 2.


Amongst primates, kidneys normally exhibiting lobulated, multipyramidal, medullas is a unique attribute of the human species. Although, kidneys naturally multipyramidal in their medullary morphology are rare in terrestrial mammals, kidneys with lobulated medullas do occur in: elephants, bears, rhinoceroses, bison, cattle, pigs, and the okapi. However, kidneys characterized with multipyramidal medullas are common in aquatic mammals and are nearly universal in marine mammals. To avoid the deleterious effects of saline water dehydration, marine mammals have adaptively thickened the medullas of their kidneys--which enhances their ability to concentrate excretory salts in the urine. However, the lobulation of the kidney's medullary region in marine mammals appears to be an adaptation to expand the surface area between the medulla and the enveloping outer cortex in order to increase the volume of marine dietary induced hypertonic plasma that can be immediately processed for the excretion of excess salts and nitrogenous waste. A phylogenetic review of freshwater aquatic mammals suggest that most, if not all, nonmarine aquatic mammals inherited the medullary pyramids of their kidneys from ancestors who originally inhabited, or frequented, marine environments. So this suggest that most, if not all, aquatic mammals exhibiting kidneys with lobulated medullas are either marine adapted--or are descended from marine antecedents. Additionally, a phylogenetic review of nonhuman terrestrial mammals possessing kidneys with multipyramidal medullas suggest that bears, elephants and possibly rhinoceroses, also, inherited their lobulated medullas from semiaquatic marine ancestors. The fact that several terrestrial mammalian species of semiaquatic marine ancestry exhibit kidneys with multipyramidal medullas, may suggest that humans could have, also, inherited the lobulated medullas of their kidneys from coastal marine ancestors. And a specialized marine diet in ancient human ancestry could, also, explain the reactivation and enumeration of corporeal eccrine sweat glands and the copious secretion of salt tears. The substantial loss of genetic variation in humans relative to other hominoid primates, combined with the apparent isolation of early Pliocene human ancestors from particular retroviruses that infected all other African primate species, may suggest that such a semiaquatic marine phase, during the emergence of Homo, may have occurred on an island off the coast of Africa during the early Pliocene.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Humans
  • Kidney / physiology*
  • Marine Biology*