Magazine article Oceanus

Even Sperm Whales Get the Bends

Magazine article Oceanus

Even Sperm Whales Get the Bends

Article excerpt

It seemed only natural that deep-diving sperm whales would be immune from decompression illness, or "the bends"--the painful, sometimes fatal condition that human divers suffer when they surface too rapidly. But the whales may be as susceptible as land mammals, according to a new study by biologists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Michael Moore and Greg Early examined bones from 16 sperm whale skeletons archived in museums and detected telltale patches of dead bone (osteonecrosis)--most likely caused by nitrogen bubbles that form when divers decompress too rapidly.

Only the bones of whale calves did not show signs of osteonecrosis, the scientists found, and the bone damage became more severe in larger (older) whales--an indication that osteonecrosis caused by decompression illness is a chronic, progressive disease among sperm whales.

When air-breathing mammals dive to high-pressure depths, the nitrogen in their bodies becomes supersaturated in their tissues. If they rise too quickly, the pressure is released too suddenly. The nitrogen reverts to gas, forming bubbles, or emboli, which can obstruct blood flow and lead to bone damage. …

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