Fur Seals Suppress REM Sleep for Very Long Periods without Subsequent Rebound

Curr Biol. 2018 Jun 18;28(12):2000-2005.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.022. Epub 2018 Jun 7.


Virtually all land mammals and birds have two sleep states: slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep [1, 2]. After deprivation of REM sleep by repeated awakenings, mammals increase REM sleep time [3], supporting the idea that REM sleep is homeostatically regulated. Some evidence suggests that periods of REM sleep deprivation for a week or more cause physiological dysfunction and eventual death [4, 5]. However, separating the effects of REM sleep loss from the stress of repeated awakening is difficult [2, 6]. The northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) is a semiaquatic mammal [7]. It can sleep on land and in seawater. The fur seal is unique in showing both the bilateral SWS seen in most mammals and the asymmetric sleep previously reported in cetaceans [8]. Here we show that when the fur seal stays in seawater, where it spends most of its life [7], it goes without or greatly reduces REM sleep for days or weeks. After this nearly complete elimination of REM, it displays minimal or no REM rebound upon returning to baseline conditions. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that REM sleep may serve to reverse the reduced brain temperature and metabolism effects of bilateral nonREM sleep, a state that is greatly reduced when the fur seal is in the seawater, rather than REM sleep being directly homeostatically regulated. This can explain the absence of REM sleep in the dolphin and other cetaceans and its increasing proportion as the end of the sleep period approaches in humans and other mammals.

Keywords: EEG; REM sleep; asymmetric; dolphin; evolution; function; fur seal; marine mammal; phylogeny; unihemispheric.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fur Seals / physiology*
  • Male
  • Seawater
  • Sleep, REM / physiology*
  • Temperature