The ontogeny of aerobic and diving capacity in the skeletal muscles of Weddell seals

S. B. Kanatous, T. J. Hawke, S. J. Trumble, L. E. Pearson, R. R. Watson, D. J. Garry, T. M. Williams, R. W. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Our objective was to determine the ontogenetic changes in the skeletal muscles of Weddell seals that transform a non-diving pup into an elite diving adult. Muscle biopsies were collected from pups, juveniles and adults and analyzed for changes in fiber type, mitochondrial density, myoglobin concentrations and aerobic, lipolytic and anaerobic enzyme activities. The fiber type results demonstrated a decrease in slow-twitch oxidative (Type I) fibers and a significant increase in fast-twitch oxidative (Type IIA) fibers as the animals mature. In addition, the volume density of mitochondria and the activity of lipolytic enzymes significantly decreased as the seals matured. To our knowledge, this is the first quantitative account describing a decrease in aerobic fibers shifting towards an increase in fast-twitch oxidative fibers with a significant decrease in mitochondrial density as animals mature. These differences in the muscle physiology of Weddell seals are potentially due to their three very distinct stages of life history: non-diving pup, novice diving juvenile, and elite deep diving adult. During the first few weeks of life, pups are a non-diving terrestrial mammal that must rely on lanugo (natal fur) for thermoregulation in the harsh conditions of Antarctica. The increased aerobic capacity of pups, associated with increased mitochondrial volumes, acts to provide additional thermogenesis. As these future elite divers mature, their skeletal muscles transform to a more sedentary state in order to maintain the low levels of aerobic metabolism associated with long-duration diving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2559-2565
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2008


  • Diving
  • Hypoxia
  • Ontogeny
  • Seals
  • Skeletal muscle


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