Discovered: How Whales Can Hold Their Breath Underwater

And why you can't

By Ruth Brown,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 15, 2013 3:43 PM CDT

(Newser) – How come some mammals—like whales—can hold their breath underwater for up to an hour, while others—like you—can't? British biologists have figured it out. Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found that deep sea diving mammals have more electrically charged proteins in their blood. The protein, myoglobin—which you do have—stores oxygen. When the myoglobin proteins are more electrically charged—which yours aren't—they don't stick together, which allows whales, seals, beavers and others to pack way more oxygen in their muscles than you can, reports the Telegraph.

The discovery has broader implications than just the marine world. The scientists say it may help us better understand human diseases like Alzheimer’s, where proteins clump together, and also aid in the development of artificial blood. It will also help trace the evolutionary history of mammals. "By mapping this molecular signature onto the family tree of mammals, we were able to reconstruct the muscle oxygen stores in extinct ancestors of today's diving mammals," says the study's lead scientist. "We were even able to report the first evidence of a common amphibious ancestor of modern sea cows, hyraxes and elephants that lived in shallow African waters some 65 million years ago."

A sperm whale calf swimming next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales.   (AP Photo/Guam Variety News, Chris Bangs, File)
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