Snorkeling Elephants and the Secrets of Breathing

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
November 6, 2002

What do snorkeling elephants, astronomers, Himalaya mountain climbers, and miners in Chile have in common?

They all have unusual breathing requirements, and at some point John B. West, a pulmonary physiologist at the University of California–San Diego School of Medicine, has studied them all. For West, it's all about lungs.

You might figure that a guy with a string of letters behind his name—Ph.D, M.D., D.Sc.—and a job description like "pulmonary physiologist" would be in contention for most boring guy on planet Earth.

You would be wrong. West could be the poster boy for a Science is Fun campaign, and when you look at what he's done, you'd be absolutely convinced: Science is enthralling.

Early in his career, West traveled to the Himalaya with Sir Edmond Hillary on the 1960-61 Silver Hut Expedition. He and a group of scientists lived for five months just south of Everest at an elevation of 19,000 feet (5,800 meters) as part of an experiment to discover the effects of long-term oxygen deprivation on the human body.

Twenty years later, he returned to Mount Everest as leader of the American Medical Research Expedition.

"We had a lab quite high on Everest at nearly 21,000 feet (6,300 meters). From there, three younger climbing scientists with two sherpas went to the top," he said. The team took the first physiological measurements ever made at 29,028 feet (8,848 meters).

His most recent passion? Working to answer a 300-year-old mystery of why elephants have such a peculiar lung structure.

Unusual Lungs

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote about elephants crossing rivers and lakes completely submerged, with only the tips of their trunks above the water, like built-in snorkel tubes. From a physiological point of view, this should be impossible; the differences in pressure exerted by the outside air and the deep water should cause the blood vessels in the lining of the lungs to burst.

"That's why you can't buy a snorkel more than 30 centimeters long (12 inches)," said West.

In 1681, a scientist in Dublin, Ireland, conducted an autopsy on an elephant that had died in a fire and wrote that the elephant's lungs were different from those of any other four-legged animal he'd ever seen.

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