The marine mammal dive response is exercise modulated to maximize aerobic dive duration

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2012 Aug;198(8):583-91. doi: 10.1007/s00359-012-0731-4. Epub 2012 May 15.


When aquatically adapted mammals and birds swim submerged, they exhibit a dive response in which breathing ceases, heart rate slows, and blood flow to peripheral tissues and organs is reduced. The most intense dive response occurs during forced submersion which conserves blood oxygen for the brain and heart, thereby preventing asphyxiation. In free-diving animals, the dive response is less profound, and energy metabolism remains aerobic. However, even this relatively moderate bradycardia seems diametrically opposed to the normal cardiovascular response (i.e., tachycardia and peripheral vasodilation) during physical exertion. As a result, there has been a long-standing paradox regarding how aquatic mammals and birds exercise while submerged. We hypothesized based on cardiovascular modeling that heart rate must increase to ensure adequate oxygen delivery to active muscles. Here, we show that heart rate (HR) does indeed increase with flipper or fluke stroke frequency (SF) during voluntary, aerobic dives in Weddell seals (HR = 1.48SF - 8.87) and bottlenose dolphins (HR = 0.99SF + 2.46), respectively, two marine mammal species with different evolutionary lineages. These results support our hypothesis that marine mammals maintain aerobic muscle metabolism while swimming submerged by combining elements of both dive and exercise responses, with one or the other predominating depending on the level of exertion.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Accelerometry / instrumentation
  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Blood Flow Velocity
  • Bottle-Nosed Dolphin / physiology*
  • Bradycardia / metabolism
  • Bradycardia / physiopathology
  • Caniformia / physiology*
  • Diving*
  • Electrocardiography, Ambulatory / instrumentation
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Heart Rate*
  • Male
  • Models, Cardiovascular
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Regional Blood Flow
  • Respiratory Rate*
  • Swimming
  • Time Factors


  • Oxygen