The Evolution of Unidirectional Pulmonary Airflow

Physiology (Bethesda). 2015 Jul;30(4):260-72. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00056.2014.


Conventional wisdom holds that the avian respiratory system is unique because air flows in the same direction through most of the gas-exchange tubules during both phases of ventilation. However, recent studies showing that unidirectional airflow also exists in crocodilians and lizards raise questions about the true phylogenetic distribution of unidirectional airflow, the selective drivers of the trait, the date of origin, and the functional consequences of this phenomenon. These discoveries suggest unidirectional flow was present in the common diapsid ancestor and are inconsistent with the traditional paradigm that unidirectional flow is an adaptation for supporting high rates of gas exchange. Instead, these discoveries suggest it may serve functions such as decreasing the work of breathing, decreasing evaporative respiratory water loss, reducing rates of heat loss, and facilitating crypsis. The divergence in the design of the respiratory system between unidirectionally ventilated lungs and tidally ventilated lungs, such as those found in mammals, is very old, with a minimum date for the divergence in the Permian Period. From this foundation, the avian and mammalian lineages evolved very different respiratory systems. I suggest the difference in design is due to the same selective pressure, expanded aerobic capacity, acting under different environmental conditions. High levels of atmospheric oxygen of the Permian Period relaxed selection for a thin blood-gas barrier and may have resulted in the homogeneous, broncho-alveolar design, whereas the reduced oxygen of the Mesozoic selected for a heterogeneous lung with an extremely thin blood-gas barrier. These differences in lung design may explain the puzzling pattern of ecomorphological diversification of Mesozoic mammals: all were small animals that did not occupy niches requiring a great aerobic capacity. The broncho-alveolar lung and the hypoxia of the Mesozoic may have restricted these mammals from exploiting niches of large body size, where cursorial locomotion can be advantageous, as well as other niches requiring great aerobic capacities, such as those using flapping flight. Furthermore, hypoxia may have exerted positive selection for a parasagittal posture, the diaphragm, and reduced erythrocyte size, innovations that enabled increased rates of ventilation and more rapid rates of diffusion in the lung.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Birds
  • Ecosystem*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology
  • Lung / anatomy & histology
  • Lung / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Reptiles
  • Respiration*