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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

On how whales avoid decompression sickness and why they sometimes strand
Arnoldus S. Blix, Lars Walloe, Edward Messelt


Whales are unique in that the supply of blood to the brain is not by the internal carotid arteries, but by way of thoracic and intra-vertebral arterial retia. We found in the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) that these retia split up into smaller anastomosing vessels and thin-walled sinusoid structures that are embedded in fat. The solubility of nitrogen is at least 6 times larger in fat than in water, and we suggest that nitrogen in supersaturated blood will be absorbed in the fat, by diffusion, during the very slow passage of the blood through the arterial retia. Formation of nitrogen bubbles that may reach the brain is thereby avoided. We also suggest that mass strandings of whales may be due to disturbances to their normal dive profiles resulting in extra release of nitrogen that may overburden the nitrogen 'trap' and allow bubbles to reach the brain and cause abnormal behaviour.