Happy EleFact Friday. We’ve discussed several physical characteristics elephants possess that make them different from other land mammals, and today we’ll be adding their lungs to that list.
To breathe, most mammals expand their chest through muscular action, which separates two membranes: the visceral pleura and the parietal pleura. The visceral pleura is attached to the lungs and, during chest expansion, stays still, while the parietal pleura that is attached to the chest expands outward. There is a fluid-filled space between those two membranes, which is called the pleural cavity, and this space widens during chest expansion. This widened space creates a vacuum-like effect, allowing air to be pulled into the lungs.
However, the process is different in elephants, because they completely lack a pleural cavity. Instead, connective tissue joins their lungs to their ribcage and diaphragm. The lungs are directly attached to the wall of the chest, which forces them to rely on direct muscular action to expand the lungs and breathe.
So what does this anatomical difference mean for elephants? Scientists have deduced that this unique way of breathing may aid in the elephants ability to “snorkel,” or submerge themselves completely under water, while taking in air from above the surface. If they didn’t have the lung-rib connective tissue, the blood vessels in the lungs likely wouldn’t survive or adapt to the major changes in pressure exerted while snorkeling. By covering these vessels in a tougher membrane, they are protected from pressure changes.
P.S.: This video is an old favorite, so we decided to post it again this week. But, don’t worry, as you just learned in the EleFact, Maia is totally fine and enjoying her afternoon in the water.