Stanford researchers record a blue whale’s heart rate

Grant Boone
November 26, 2019

This device was fresh off a daylong ride on Earth's largest species - a blue whale. To measure the heart rate of the whale, the team used four suction cups to secure the sensor tag to the animals as the heart rate was recorded via electrodes embedded in the center of the two suction feet.

'We had no concept that this is able to work and we have been sceptical even after we noticed the preliminary information, ' mentioned lead writer and biologist Jeremy Goldbogen of Stanford College.

The researchers's analysis suggests that the blue whale's heart is working at its limit, which may explain why the creatures have never evolved to be any bigger.

The data also suggest that some unusual features of the whale's heart might help it perform at these extremes. Studies like this add to our fundamental knowledge of biology and can also inform conservation efforts.

To find out exactly how much a blue whale's heart rate changes during a dive, the study authors followed a group of whales they'd previously studied in Monterey Bay, California, and tagged one with a special sensor mounted on the end of a 20-foot-long pole (6 m).

I genuinely thought it was a since quite a while ago shot since we needed to get such a large number of things right: finding a blue whale, getting the tag in the flawless area on the whale, great contact with the whales skin and, obviously, ensuring the tag is working and recording information, said Goldbogen in an official statement. The suction cup tags were out onto the whale without knowing if they would stay on due to the accordion-like skin of the whale that stretches when it opens its mouth to feed.

The team monitored the heart rate of a whale swimming in California's Monterey Bay for 8.5 hours, during which it dived multiple times.

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Cade stuck the tag on his first attempt and, over time, it slid into a position near the flipper where it could pick up the heart's signals. The data he captured showed surprising extremes.

A blue whale can beat its coronary heart simply twice a minute when diving - a fee that's half as sluggish as had beforehand been thought doable - an experiment has discovered.

Heart rates during dives reached a minimum of two beats per minute, well below the predicted resting heart rate of 15 beats per minute, and surged to 2.5 times the minimum heart rate during lunge feeding. When the whale surfaced to breathe and recover, its heart rate accelerated to 40 beats per minute. Once the whale filled and began to emerge, the heart rate increased. This nearly outpaced what the researchers expected, but it was the minimum heart rate that really caught the researchers by surprise, being around 30 to 50 percent lower than they'd expected. The researchers think that the surprisingly low heart rate can be explained by an elastic aortic arch, part of the heart that carries blood to the body, which, in the blue whale, contracts slowly to maintain additional blood flow between beats.

They think that the limit is why the whale didn't get any larger. "Particularly, new measures of vital rates and physiological rates help us understand how animals work at the upper extreme of body mass".

Scientists are hoping to try the tag on other whales, such as humpbacks, minke whales and fin whales.

"A lot of what we do involves new technology and a lot of it relies on new ideas, new methods and new approaches", says Cade. His heart weighs 400 pounds, about the size of a refrigerator, "said Dave Cade, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz, co-author of the study". Goldbogen is also a member of Stanford Bio-X.

This research was funded by the Office of Naval Research, a Terman Scholarship from Stanford University and the John B. McKee Fund of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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