Life Science

The Remarkable Non-Stick Lungs of Elephant Seals

If you ever have the opportunity to see an elephant seal sneeze, you’ll probably notice something a little unusual. Around their nostrils is a bright white discharge. It’s so starkly white, it’s almost like they’re sneezing paint.

What you’re seeing expelled is the remarkable substance that makes it possible for elephant seals to survive dives that exceed the estimated collapse-depth of a Seawolf-class nuclear submarine.

A sleeping male elephant seal on the rocks with with pulmonary surfactant on its nose
Sleeping male elephant seal on a rocky beach with pulmonary surfactant leaking from its nostrils.
Image by Claire Simeone‏

Visiting Crushing Depths

Elephant seals are among the planet’s most accomplished free-divers. They routinely make journeys to depths between 300 to 900 meters (1,000 to 3,000 feet) with one particularly deep recorded dive reaching an astounding 2,388 meters. That’s more than 1.5 miles underwater!

Even more impressive is the fact that they can stay down there in the crushing depths for periods of up to 100 minutes (though the average is 20 minutes), surfacing only for a few minutes between their excursions back into the abyss.

These vertical back and forth rhythms can go on for hours during their months-long excursions away from land. In the process, they subject their bodies to enormous pressure differentials.

The ambient pressure increases by 1 atm every 10 meters underwater. That means that at depths of around 900 meters, elephant seals experience the rough equivalent of 90 atmospheres worth of pressure bearing down on every point on the surface of their body. The ocean wants to crush them like an empty aluminum can and, remarkably, the elephant seals survive.

Part of that survival ability is due to that amazing white pulmonary surfactant seen around their nostrils when the seals are on the surface. Pulmonary surfactants are vital to the ability of mammals, including humans, to breathe. Mammals need surfactants to lower the surface tension of the fluid coating their lungs. That, in turn, allows the tiny alveoli to function as a conduit for oxygen and carbon dioxide traveling between our lungs and blood.

Without it, they would suffocate. They would essentially drown in their own lung fluid.

Sleeping southern elephant seal with pulmonary surfactant around its nostrils
Sleeping southern elephant seal with pulmonary surfactant around its nostrils.
Licensed Image by Manfred Thürig | All Rights Reserved

Non-Stick Lungs

In elephant seals, this surfactant serves a secondary function. When an elephant seal makes an extremely deep dive, its lungs collapse under the immense ambient pressure. Their respiratory tissues all begin to compress and the alveoli are smashed together into a tighter and tighter space as the seal’s lungs buckle and fold. When the animal heads back to the surface, that process reverses, and it’s the unique white-colored surfactant that makes that rapid, seemingly effortless re-expansion possible.

Studies of elephant seal surfactant have shown that, aside from the normal surface-tension lowering functions found in other mammals, it acts as an anti-adhesive. It prevents lung tissues from sticking together. That effect allows the seal’s lungs to go through frequent cycles of rapid collapse and re-expansion as though nothing happened. Non-stick lungs!

By studying the properties of these surfactants (including their unique composition that features greater concentrations of short-chain phospholipids, more fluidic species of phosphatidylcholine, a relative decrease in anionic phospholipids, and a decrease in surfactant protein B compared to terrestrial mammals), researchers may be able to help improve the artificial surfactants used to treat human patients like premature infants who suffer from inadequate surfactants or patients whose surfactants have been affected by trauma (e.g. near-drownings and pulmonary injuries).

For the seals, however, it’s just business as usual.

References and Further Reading

Castellini, M.A., Mellish, J.A. (2015). Marine Mammal Physiology: Requisites for Ocean Living. CRC Press.

Miller, N. J., Daniels, C. B., Schürch, S., Schoel, W. M., & Orgeig, S. (2006). The surface activity of pulmonary surfactant from diving mammals. Respiratory physiology & neurobiology, 150(2), 220-232.

Ponganis, P. J. (2015). Diving physiology of marine mammals and seabirds. Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, P. W., Costa, D. P., Crocker, D. E., Gallo-Reynoso, J. P., Champagne, C. D., Fowler, M. A., … & Kuhn, C. E. (2012). Foraging behavior and success of a mesopelagic predator in the northeast Pacific Ocean: insights from a data-rich species, the northern elephant seal. PloS one, 7(5), e36728.

Rugonyi, S., Biswas, S. C., & Hall, S. B. (2008). The biophysical function of pulmonary surfactant. Respiratory physiology & neurobiology, 163(1), 244-255.

Spragg, R. G., Ponganis, P. J., Marsh, J. J., Rau, G. A., & Bernhard, W. (2004). Surfactant from diving aquatic mammals. Journal of Applied Physiology, 96(5), 1626-1632.

Ponganis, P. J. (2011). Diving mammals. Comprehensive Physiology.

UC Santa Cruz News Center – Elephant seal tracking reveals hidden lives of deep-diving animals

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