Working underground: Respiratory adaptations in the blind mole rat

Hans R. Widmer, Hans Hoppeler, Eviatar Nevo, C. Richard Taylor, Ewald R. Weibel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mole rats (Spalax ehrenbergi superspecies) perform the heavy work of digging their subterranean burrows in Israel under highly hypoxic/hypercapnic conditions. Unlike must other mammals, they can achieve high levels of metabolic rate under these conditions, while their metabolic rate at low work rates is depressed. We explored, by comparing mole rats with white rats, whether and how this is related to adaptations in the design of the respiratory system, which determines the transfer of O2 from the lung to muscle mitochondria. At the same body mass, mole rats were found to have a significantly smaller total skeletal muscle mass than ordinary white rats (- 22%). In contrast, the fractional volume of muscle mitochondria was larger by 46%. As a consequence, both species had the same total amount of mitochondria and achieved, under normoxia, the same V̇O2(max). Whereas the O2 transport capacity of the blood was not different, we found a larger capillary density (+31%) in the mole rat muscle, resulting in a reduced diffusion distance to mitochondria. The structural pulmonary diffusing capacity for O2 was greater in the mole rat (+44%), thus facilitating O2 uptake in hypoxia. We conclude that structural adaptations in lung and muscle tissue improve O2 diffusion conditions and serve to maintain high metabolic rates in hypoxia but have no consequences for achieving V̇O2(max) under normoxic conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2062-2067
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - 4 Mar 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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