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Vascular lining helps maintain body temperature: leatherback sea turtle


Leatherback turtle / U.S. Fish an.. / LicenseCC-by - Attribution

The vascular lining in the trachea of adult leatherback sea turtles helps them maintain body temperature while foraging in cold water via counter-current exchange.

"Adult leatherbacks are large animals (300–500 kg), overlapping in size with marine pinniped and cetacean species. Unlike marine mammals, they start their aquatic life as 40–50 g hatchlings, so undergo a 10,000-fold increase in body mass during independent existence. Hatchlings are limited to the tropics and near-surface water. Adults, obligate predators on gelatinous plankton, encounter cold water at depth (<1280 m) or high latitude and are gigantotherms that maintain elevated core body temperatures in cold water. This study shows that there are great ontogenetic changes in tracheal structure related to diving and exposure to cold. Hatchling leatherbacks have a conventional reptilian tracheal structure with circular cartilaginous rings interspersed with extensive connective tissue. The adult trachea is an almost continuous ellipsoidal cartilaginous tube composed of interlocking plates, and will collapse easily in the upper part of the water column during dives, thus avoiding pressure-related structural and physiological problems. It is lined with an extensive, dense erectile vascular plexus that will warm and humidify cold inspired air and possibly retain heat on expiration. A sub-luminal lymphatic plexus is also present. Mammals and birds have independently evolved nasal turbinates to fulfil such a respiratory thermocontrol function; for them, turbinates are regarded as diagnostic of endothermy. This is the first demonstration of a turbinate equivalent in a living reptile." (Davenport et al. 2009:3440)

"[T]he trachea is lined throughout by a continuous vascular plexus. This contains a high proportion of longitudinally arranged, large-diameter blood vessels lying mainly in the deeper two-thirds of the mucosa, with prominent cross-connections between them. The arrangement is consistent with their functioning as a counter-current arrangement, retaining heat and maintaining body temperatureWe believe that the vascular lining of the long adult leatherback trachea functions in analogous fashion to nasal turbinates." (Davenport et al. 2009:3445-6)
About the inspiring organism
Med_5839996547_f95d7d56a5_b Leatherback Sea Turtle
Dermochelys coriacea VANDELLI 1761
Common name: Lederschildkrote

Learn more at
Some organism data provided by: TIGR Reptile Database
Organism/taxonomy data provided by:
Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist

Threat Categories LONG_CR IUCN Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: Heat exchange in construction of homes and other buildings.

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Building, manufacturing, construction

Department of Zoology, Ecology and Plant Science
Professor John Davenport
The Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork
Davenport J; Fraher J; Fitzgerald E; McLaughlin P; Doyle T; Harman L; Cuffe T; Dockery P. 2009. Ontogenetic changes in tracheal structure facilitate deep dives and cold water foraging in adult leatherback sea turtles. Journal of Experimental Biology. 212(21): 3440-7.
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