Could beaked whales get the bends? Effect of diving behaviour and physiology on modelled gas exchange for three species: Ziphius cavirostris, Mesoplodon densirostris and Hyperoodon ampullatus

Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2009 Jul 31;167(3):235-46. doi: 10.1016/j.resp.2009.04.023. Epub 2009 May 7.


A mathematical model, based on current knowledge of gas exchange and physiology of marine mammals, was used to predict blood and tissue tension N2 (P(N2)) using field data from three beaked whale species: northern bottlenose whales, Cuvier's beaked whales, and Blainville's beaked whales. The objective was to determine if physiology (body mass, diving lung volume, dive response) or dive behaviour (dive depth and duration, changes in ascent rate, diel behaviour) would lead to differences in P(N2) levels and thereby decompression sickness (DCS) risk between species. Diving lung volume and extent of the dive response had a large effect on end-dive P(N2). The dive profile had a larger influence on end-dive P(N2) than body mass differences between species. Despite diel changes in dive behaviour, P(N2) levels showed no consistent trend. Model output suggested that all three species live with tissue P(N2) levels that would cause a significant proportion of DCS cases in terrestrial mammals. Cuvier's beaked whale diving behaviour appears to put them at higher risk than the other species, which may explain their prevalence in strandings after the use of mid-frequency sonar.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Cardiac Output / physiology
  • Decompression Sickness / physiopathology*
  • Decompression Sickness / veterinary*
  • Diving / physiology*
  • Lung / physiology
  • Lung Volume Measurements
  • Models, Statistical
  • Nitrogen / blood
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Pulmonary Gas Exchange / physiology*
  • Regional Blood Flow / physiology
  • Risk
  • Species Specificity
  • Whales / physiology*


  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Nitrogen