Air flows through lizard lungs one way


Air flows through lizard lungs in one direction, a finding that may prompt a rethink about how some species evolved following Earth’s biggest mass extinction, a recent study said.

Humans and most other animals in contrast have a so-called “tidal,” or two-way, breathing system.

Air is drawn into the lungs until it reaches a dead end — bunches of cells called alveoli. There, oxygen is drawn into the bloodstream and exchanged for carbon dioxide, which is then breathed out with the used air.

Birds, though, are a notable exception to this. Their breathing is predominantly a one-way flow into the lungs — the air enters the trachea, or windpipe, flows through the lung in one direction and then exits the way it came in.

This unusual pattern of breathing has raised much debate among biologists.

One theory is that a one-way flow is a highly efficient way of providing oxygen for strenuous activity: It helps birds cope with the exertion of flying and dealing with thinner concentrations of oxygen at altitude.

But, surprisingly, lizards — a sleepy group of land-loving animals — can also be counted as members of the club, according to the new probe.

University of Utah biologist C.G. Farmer led a team that carried out 3-D scans of the lungs of African monitor lizards (Varanus exanthematicus) and then implanted flow meters in five of the animals to see how the air moved.

They also pumped air into the lungs of 10 dead lizards, and then water, laden with sunflower pollen as a tracer. These too showed a unilateral flow.

The investigators found that air enters the lizards’ trachea and then splits into two airways — one for each lung. It then winds its way through a series of chambers in each lung, passing through perforated walls, before doubling back. The used gas heads out through the trachea. As with birds, there is some “tidal” flow, but not much.

A similar one-way flow also appears to exist among American alligators, helping them quite literally to hold their breath, whether they are underwater or not, Farmer said.