The researcher and his colleagues sampled 24 elephant seals, ranging in age from pups to juveniles to adults, at the Año Nuevo State Reserve near Santa Cruz, California.
The researchers are not sure why elephant seals naturally produce higher levels of carbon monoxide, but suspect it may have something to do with the animal's prolific diving abilities. The mammals can dive more than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) beneath the surface of the sea, holding their breath and conserving oxygen for impressively long periods of time.
"Elephant seals will shut off blood to specific organs and tissues as they are diving," Tift said. "Recently, we found that low levels of carbon monoxide can be therapeutic in treating certain conditions where blood has been shut off to muscles."
As such, carbon monoxide could protect elephant seals from reperfusion injuries, which occur when blood returns to tissue after sustained periods of oxygen deprivation.
"We can't say for sure that the carbon monoxide is therapeutic for elephant seals, but it definitely has the potential," Tift said. "If they didn't have this high level of carbon monoxide, there's a chance we would see injuries from reperfusion."
The researchers are testing this hypothesis by studying other diving and non-diving animals, including sea lions, penguins and terrestrial birds.
"We want to know, is high carbon monoxide found in all marine mammals? Is it found in deep divers, or both divers and non-divers?" Tift said.
The results of the new study were published online today (May 14) in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
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