Deciphering function of the pulmonary arterial sphincters in loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Daniel Garcia-Parraga, Teresa Lorenzo, Tobias Wang, Jose-Luis Ortiz, Joaquin Ortega, Jose-Luis Crespo-Picazo, Julio Cortijo, and Andreas Fahlman

To provide new insight into the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying gas emboli (GE) in bycaught loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), we investigated the vasoactive characteristics of the pulmonary and systemic arteries, and the lung parenchyma (LP). Tissues were opportunistically excised from recently dead animals for in vitro studies of vasoactive responses to four different neurotransmitters: acetylcholine (ACh; parasympathetic), serotonin (5HT), adrenaline (Adr; sympathetic) and histamine. The significant amount of smooth muscle in the LP contracted in response to ACh, Adr and histamine. The intrapulmonary and systemic arteries contracted under both parasympathetic and sympathetic stimulation and when exposed to 5HT. However, proximal extrapulmonary arterial (PEPA) sections contracted in response to ACh and 5HT, whereas Adr caused relaxation. In sea turtles, the relaxation in the pulmonary artery was particularly pronounced at the level of the pulmonary artery sphincter (PASp), where the vessel wall was highly muscular. For comparison, we also studied tissue response in freshwater sliders turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans). Both PEPA and LP from freshwater sliders contracted in response to 5HT, ACh and also Adr. We propose that in sea turtles, the dive response (parasympathetic tone) constricts the PEPA, LP and PASp, causing a pulmonary shunt and limiting gas uptake at depth, which reduces the risk of GE during long and deep dives. Elevated sympathetic tone caused by forced submersion during entanglement with fishing gear increases the pulmonary blood flow causing an increase in N2 uptake, potentially leading to the formation of blood and tissue GE at the surface. These findings provide potential physiological and anatomical explanations on how these animals have evolved a cardiac shunt pattern that regulates gas exchange during deep and prolonged diving.

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