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Fitbit-style tech reveals how seals prepare to dive

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Before diving underwater, seals can choose to reduce the blood flow in their blubber to conserve oxygen and energy — controlling a reflex once thought autonomous Researchers led by a Scottish university developed a Fitbit-style, non-invasive device to measure changes in seals' blood volume and oxygen levels as they dove They found that seals have conscious control of their dive reflex, pre-tuning their bodies both before dives and subsequent surfacing Scroll down for video Before diving underwater, seals can choose to reduce the blood flow in their blubber to conserve oxygen and energy — controlling a reflex once thought autonomous WHAT ARE DIVE REFLEXES? The mammalian diving reflex is a series of bodily responses to being submerged in water or other liquids The dive reflex overrides the body's normal regulatory reflexesIt redistributes oxygen stores to the heart and brain, enabling animals to stay under water for longer It is found in all air-breathing vertebrates — animals with back bones — that have been studied to date Dolphins, otters and seals have a particularly strong reflex

  The response is usually triggered when an animal is holding its breath and its nostrils are chilled and wetted  However, recent studies have suggested that some animals can control of the reflex consciously   Marine mammals that dive underwater are hard to study, leaving much uncertain about the biological processes that support their aquatic lifestyles — such as the dive reflex To make these kinds of investigations easier, a team of researchers led from the University of St Andrews in Scotland developed a piece of wearable tech that can measure a seal's blood volume and oxygenation levels Attaching the device to harbour seals, the researchers found that the blood vessels near the seals' skins began to contract before they dove — typically around 15 seconds in advance, but sometimes as far as 45 seconds beforehand     That means it must be under conscious control, lead author Chris McKnight explained to the New Scientist 'There’s no other stimulus,' he saidFurther evidence for the seals having conscious control of their dive reflexes came as the mammals returned to the surface of the water The monitoring devices revealed that the seals also restored normal blood flow back to their blubber seconds before they began to surface  Researchers also found that while feeding, seals do not bother to stay at the water's surface for long enough to completely restore normal blood oxygen levels Researchers led by a Scottish university developed a Fitbit-style, non-invasive device to measure changes in seals' blood volume and oxygen levels as they dove (stock image)Nearly every mammal has a dive reflex, including humans The reflex triggers various changes in the body that are beneficial to swimming underwater, including the reduction of blood flow to the skin and a reduction in heart rate which lowers the rate of oxygen consumption  Previously, the dive reflex was thought to be an automatic response, one which is triggered in humans, for example, by the holding of the breath and the sensation of cold water hitting the face Recently, however, studied have begun to show that some diving mammals have degrees of control over this process, including harbour porpoises, which can slow their hearts further if they plan to stay under the water for longer Unlike in the average human, they found that seals have conscious control of their dive reflex, pre-tuning their bodies both before dives and subsequent surfacingThe wearable device — which researchers positioned on the top of the seal's head — works by shining near-infrared light into the seal's skin to measure the relative changes in the blood volume and oxygen levels of the seal's blubber and brains 'It’s effectively like a Fitbit,' McKnight said of the monitoring device 'It does not penetrate the skin,' he added During the experiment, the seals dove naturally and of their own accordWith this initial study complete, researchers are now planning study other mammals, including humans With champion free divers having set breath-holding records of over 11 minutes and return dive distances of up to around 427 feet (130 metres), elite divers may have some conscious control over their dive reflexes too, Dr McKnight explains  Dr McKnight suspects elite free divers may have a degree of conscious control over the dive reflex, too The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS Biology

Source: Youtube

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