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Mystery solved: how diving mammals survive underwater

Scientists have discovered a unique quality of a protein in diving mammals that allows them to survive for long periods underwater.


A pod of sperm whales dives into the deep blue sea off the coast of Mirissa, in southern Sri Lanka, in April 2013.

Joshua Barton/Reuters

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When a sperm whale slips beneath the water, plunging down more than 1,000 feet, it won’t be seen anytime soon. The elusive whale, in a feat that has long perplexed scientists, can stay there for more than an hour before it needs to surface again for a breath.

Scientists are now closer to understanding how diving mammals, such as the sperm whale, are able to survive for long periods underwater. Some mammal divers can hold their breath under water for more than an hour, while humans can last just minutes. 

A team of scientists at the University of Liverpool has identified a distinctive molecular signature of myoglobin, the oxygen-binding protein that gives meat its red color, in the sperm whale and other diving mammals.

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Myoglobin is present in such high concentrations in mammalian divers that their muscles are almost black-colored, rather than red. Since proteins tend to be less effective and clump together at high concentrations, it was not previously understood how such densely packed myoglobin could store enough oxygen to let mammalian divers perform their underwater feats, the envy of every astronaut hopeful.


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