American Oceans

The Animal That Can Hold Its Breath the Longest

When it comes to holding their breath, humans are not particularly impressive. The average person can only hold their breath for about 30 seconds to a minute. However, there are animals in the world that can hold their breath for much longer periods of time. In fact, some animals can go without breathing for hours or even days.

a cuviers beaked whale underwater

So, what animal can hold its breath the longest? The answer to that question is not a simple one. Different animals have different abilities when it comes to holding their breath. Some animals, like whales and dolphins, are known for their incredible lung capacity and can hold their breath for over an hour. Other animals, like turtles and crocodiles, have the ability to slow down their heart rate and conserve oxygen, allowing them to stay underwater for extended periods of time.

Understanding Breath-Holding in Animals

blue whale world record holder for largest animals

Breath-holding is a physiological function that allows certain animals to remain underwater for extended periods. The ability to hold one’s breath is essential for animals that live in aquatic environments, such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles. However, some terrestrial animals, such as humans, can also hold their breath for relatively long periods.

Breathing is a complex process that involves the lungs, muscles, heart rate, and blood flow. When an animal takes a breath, oxygen enters the lungs and is transported to the bloodstream, where it is carried to the body’s tissues. During breath-holding, the body’s oxygen supply is gradually depleted, and the level of carbon dioxide in the blood rises.

In aquatic animals, breath-holding is facilitated by several adaptations. For example, whales and dolphins have large lungs that can store a significant amount of oxygen. They also have a high concentration of myoglobin, a protein that stores oxygen in muscles, which allows them to utilize oxygen more efficiently. Seals and sea turtles, on the other hand, have the ability to slow down their heart rate and redirect blood flow to critical organs, such as the brain and heart, during prolonged dives.

In humans, breath-holding is primarily controlled by the body’s respiratory center, located in the brainstem. During breath-holding, the body’s oxygen supply is gradually depleted, and the level of carbon dioxide in the blood rises. This triggers a reflex that stimulates the respiratory center, causing the animal to take a breath.

The duration of breath-holding varies widely among animals, depending on their size, metabolic rate, and physiological adaptations. For example, sperm whales can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes, while bottlenose dolphins can hold their breath for about 10 minutes. In contrast, humans can typically hold their breath for only a few minutes.

Longest Breath-Holding Marine Mammals

body of a cuviers beaked whale diving

Marine mammals have adapted to the aquatic environment in various ways, including their ability to hold their breath for extended periods. Deep-diving marine mammals can reach depths of up to 1 mile where they can stay submerged for over an hour.

The record for the longest breath hold of any mammal belongs to the Cuvier’s beaked whale, which can hold its breath for up to 3 hours. The sperm whale is another champion of deep diving and can hold its breath for up to 90 minutes.

Other marine mammals that are known for their exceptional breath-holding abilities include elephant seals, which can hold their breath for up to 2 hours, and northern elephant seals, which can hold their breath for up to 100 minutes.

Interestingly, the breath-holding capacity of marine mammals is not solely dependent on lung size. Instead, they have developed various physiological adaptations to help them survive in the aquatic environment. For example, marine mammals have an erythrocytosis, which is an increase in the number of red blood cells, to help transport oxygen to their tissues during prolonged breath-holding.

Additionally, marine mammals have larger oxygen stores, which enable longer aerobic dive durations. During voluntary dives, heart rate and metabolic rate decrease to conserve oxygen, and blood flow is redirected to vital organs such as the brain and heart.

Specific Case Studies

a cuviers beaked whale in the water

Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) is known for its deep-diving ability, and it holds the record for the longest recorded dive by a mammal. In 2014, a Cuvier’s beaked whale was recorded diving for 2 hours and 17 minutes, reaching a depth of 2,992 meters (9,816 feet) in the Pacific Ocean. The species is able to stay underwater for such extended periods due to its oxygen-binding protein, myoglobin, which stores oxygen in the muscles and allows for efficient use of oxygen during dives.

Northern Elephant Seal

The northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) is another deep-diving marine mammal that is known for its ability to hold its breath for long periods. These endotherms are adapted to the cold ocean environment with a thick layer of blubber and a low heart rate during dives. The northern elephant seal can dive for up to 1.5 hours and reach depths of up to 1,500 meters (4,921 feet).

Sperm Whale

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are the largest toothed whales and are also known for their deep-diving ability. They can dive for up to 90 minutes and reach depths of up to 2,250 meters (7,382 feet) in search of their preferred prey, squid. Sperm whales have adaptations that allow them to tolerate the high pressure of deep dives, such as collapsible lungs and a flexible ribcage.

Breath-Holding in Turtles

Turtle sleeping on corals undersea

Turtles are known for their ability to hold their breath for extended periods. This skill is particularly useful for aquatic turtle species, such as sea turtles, which can remain underwater for up to several hours.

Sea turtles, such as the loggerhead and green sea turtle, are ectotherms, meaning their body temperature is regulated by the environment. They have adapted to their aquatic lifestyle by developing the ability to slow down their metabolic rate and conserve oxygen. This allows them to remain submerged for long periods without needing to breathe.

Some turtle species, such as the loggerhead sea turtle, are also capable of cloacal respiration. This is a unique form of respiration in which the turtle can extract oxygen from water through its cloaca, a multi-purpose opening used for excretion and reproduction.

Turtles are also known for their ability to hibernate, which involves slowing down their metabolic rate and reducing their oxygen consumption. During hibernation, some turtle species can go for months without breathing.

Other Notable Breath-Holders

sea otters lontra felina taxonomy swimming in saltwater

While the sperm whale is the champion of breath-holding among mammals, there are other animals that can hold their breath for impressive lengths of time.

Sea otters, for example, are known to hold their breath for up to 8 minutes while foraging for food. They have the densest fur of any mammal, which traps a layer of air against their skin and helps them stay buoyant while underwater.

Sloths, although not aquatic animals, are also impressive breath-holders. They can hold their breath for up to 40 minutes while hanging upside down from a tree branch. This is due to their slow metabolism and low body temperature, which allows them to conserve oxygen.

Some types of crabs and lobsters can also hold their breath for extended periods of time. They have gills that extract oxygen from the water, but they can also absorb oxygen through their exoskeletons. This allows them to survive out of water for some time.

Certain species of fish, such as the lungfish, have adapted to survive in environments with low oxygen levels. They can extract oxygen from the air using a primitive lung-like organ, which allows them to survive out of water for extended periods of time.

Comparison with Human Breath-Holding

a woman snorkeling in oahu with a turtle

Humans are capable of holding their breath for a short period of time, typically around one to two minutes. However, some individuals have been able to hold their breath for much longer periods of time, with the current world record for static apnea (breath-holding at rest) standing at 11 minutes and 54 seconds, held by Aleix Segura Vendrell, a Spanish freediver.

When comparing human breath-holding abilities to those of animals, it is important to note that humans have several physiological adaptations that allow them to hold their breath for longer periods of time. For example, humans can voluntarily hold their breath by closing their nose and mouth, which allows them to conserve oxygen in their lungs. Additionally, humans have a relatively hairless skin surface, which reduces oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production during breath-holding.

However, even with these adaptations, humans are still outperformed by several aquatic animals in terms of breath-holding ability. For example, the sperm whale can hold its breath for up to two hours, while the elephant seal can hold its breath for up to two hours and thirty minutes. Other animals that are capable of impressive breath-holding include the beaver, which can hold its breath for up to fifteen minutes, and the common dolphin, which can hold its breath for up to ten minutes.

Evolutionary Perspective

a bowhead whale in the water seen from the top

The ability to hold one’s breath for extended periods of time has been a crucial adaptation for many aquatic animals. Evolutionary history has shown that diving mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have developed specialized physiological and anatomical adaptations that allow them to remain submerged for long periods of time.

According to a study, humans are also capable of breath-hold diving, with some individuals being able to hold their breath for over 11 minutes. This ability is thought to be a remnant of our semi-aquatic phase in evolutionary history.

Interestingly, not all aquatic animals have developed the ability to hold their breath for extended periods of time. For example, fish rely on gills to extract oxygen from water and are therefore unable to hold their breath.

From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to hold one’s breath for extended periods of time has likely been a crucial adaptation for aquatic animals. This adaptation has allowed diving mammals to catch prey, escape predators, and conserve energy while submerged.

Breath-Holding and Survival

Sperm whale in Indian ocean

Breath-holding is a crucial survival skill for many animals that live in aquatic environments. Underwater, the ability to hold one’s breath can mean the difference between life and death. Predators, dangerous currents, and deep dives are just some of the hazards that aquatic animals face.

Some of the longest breath-holding animals are marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals. These animals have evolved specialized respiratory systems that allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time. For example, the Weddell seal can hold its breath for up to 90 minutes while diving to depths of over 600 meters in the frozen waters of Antarctica.

Other animals that can hold their breath for long periods of time include sea turtles, crocodiles, and some species of birds. Sea turtles can hold their breath for up to seven hours while hibernating on the ocean floor. Crocodiles can hold their breath for up to two hours while waiting for prey underwater. Some birds, such as the common loon, can hold their breath for up to three minutes while diving for fish.

Breath-holding is not just limited to aquatic animals. Some terrestrial mammals, such as the muskrat and the beaver, can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes while swimming underwater.

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