Studies of the Weddell seal in the laboratory have described the physiological mechanisms that allow the seal to cope with the extreme oxygen deprivation that occurs during its longest dives, which can extend 500 meters below the oceanâ€™s surface and last for over 70 minutes. Recent field studies, however, suggest that during more typical dives in the wild, this sealâ€™s physiological behavior is different.
In the laboratory, when the seal dives below the surface of the water and stops breathing, its heart beats more slowly, requiring less oxygen, and its arteries become constricted, ensuring that the sealâ€™s blood remains concentrated near those organs most crucial to its ability to navigate underwater. The seal essentially shuts off the flow of blood to other organs, which either stop functioning until the seal surfaces or switch to an anaerobic (oxygen-independent) metabolism. The latter results in the production of large amounts of lactic acid which can adversely affect the pH of the sealâ€™s blood, but since the anaerobic metabolism occurs only in (line 41)those tissues which have been isolated from the sealâ€™s blood supply, the lactic acid is released into the sealâ€™s blood only after the seal surfaces, when the lungs, liver, and other organs quickly clear the acid from the sealâ€™s bloodstream.
Recent field studies, however, reveal that on dives in the wild, the seal usually heads directly for its prey and returns to the surface in less than twenty minutes. The absence of high levels of lactic acid in the sealâ€™s blood after such dives suggests that during them, the sealâ€™s organs do not resort to the anaerobic metabolism observed in the laboratory, but are supplied with oxygen from the blood. The sealâ€™s longer excursions underwater, during which it appears to be either exploring distant routes or evading a predator, do evoke the diving response seen in the laboratory. But why do the sealâ€™s laboratory dives always evoke this response, regardless of their length or depth? Some biologists speculate that because in laboratory dives the seal is forcibly submerged, it does not know how long it will remain underwater and so prepares for the worst.
The passage suggests that during laboratory dives, the pH of the Weddell sealâ€™s blood is not adversely affected by the production of lactic acid because