Diving Physiology and Behavior of Emperor Penguins
The emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, is the premier avian diver and a top predator in the Antarctic ecosystem. The routine occurrence of 500-m diver during foraging trips to sea is both a physiological and behavior enigma. The objectives of this project address how and why emperors dive as deep and long as they do. The project examines four major topics in the diving biology of emperor penguins: pressure tolerance, oxygen store management, end-organ tolerance of diving hypoxemia/ischemia, and deep-dive foraging behavior. These subjects are relevant to the role of the emperor as a top predator in the Antarctic ecosystem, and to critical concepts in diving physiology, including decompression sickness, nitrogen narcosis, shallow water blackout, hypoxemic tolerance, and extension of aerobic dive time. The following hypotheses will be tested: 1) Prevention of nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness in emperor penguins is achieved by inhibition of pulmonary gas exchange at depth. 2) Shallow water black out does not occur because of greater cerebral hypoxemic tolerance, and, in deep dives, because of resumption of pulmonary gas exchange during final ascent. 3) The rate of depletion of the blood oxygen store is a function of depth of dive and heart rate. 4) The aerobic dive limit (ADL) reflects the onset of lactate accumulation in locomotory muscle, not total depletion of all oxygen stores. 5) Elevation of tissue antioxidant capacity and free-radical scavenging enzyme activities protect against the routine ischemia/reperfusion which occur during diving. 6) During deep dives, the Antarctic silverfish, Pleuorogramma antarcticum, is the primary prey item for emperors.
In addition to evaluation of the hypotheses below, the project has broader impacts in several areas such as partnership with foreign and national institutes and organizations (e.g., the National Institute of Polar Research of Japan, Centro de Investigacioines del Noroeste of Mexico, National Geographic, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Sea World). Participation in National Geographic television documentaries will provide unique educational opportunities for the general public; development of state-of-the-art technology (e.g., blood oxygen electrode recorders, blood samplers, and miniaturized digital cameras) will lay the groundwork for future research by this group and others; and the effects of the B15 iceberg on breeding success of emperor penguins will continue to be evaluated with population censuses during planned fieldwork at several Ross Sea emperor penguin colonies.
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