The development of blood oxygen stores in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): implications for diving capacity


*All correspondence to: S. R. Noren. E-mail:


Enhanced oxygen reserves in the blood facilitate diving in marine mammals. For pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), a developmental period of 4 to 24 months is required for blood oxygen stores to reach adult capacities. We investigated whether a similar developmental period for the blood occurs in cetaceans (dolphins and whales), a group of mammals that are exposed to diving immediately after birth. Blood samples were collected from wild and zoological park bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus aged 0–12 years. Red blood cell number (RBC), haemoglobin content (Hb), haematocrit (Hct), mean corpuscular volume (MCV), mean cell haemoglobin (MCH), and mean corpuscular haemoglobin concentration (MCHC) were determined for each sample. We found that during postnatal development, RBC, Hb and Hct decreased from 0 to 1.5 months and then increased from 1.5 to 6 months, reaching adult levels by 3 years. MCV and MCH both increased from birth. MCHC decreased from 0 to 3.2 months and then increased. Adult levels for MCV were attained as early as 2 months of age while adult levels for MCH and MCHC were attained by 6 months of age. These results indicate that, for bottlenose dolphins, the development of the blood and its capacity to store oxygen is not complete with weaning, which generally occurs at 1.5 years old. The lower oxygen storage capacity of immature dolphins is likely to limit dive capabilities. Calculated aerobic dive limits (cADLs) for 0- to 2-year-old dolphin calves are 1.9–3.6 min, compared to 4.8–5.4 min for 3- to 12-year-old dolphins. Increases in cADLs from 0 to 3 years are attributed to increases in both body mass and mass specific oxygen stores while body mass alone explains the increases in cADLs from 3 to 9 years. The limited diving capacity of young dolphins may influence the foraging behaviours of newly weaned juveniles and females accompanied by calves.