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Keywords:

  • fetal heart rate;
  • diving mammals;
  • apneic bradycardia;
  • harbor seals

Abstract

Fetal and maternal heart rates were studied in unrestrained, pregnant harbor seals during the last third of gestation. Heart rates were recorded while the mothers were resting on land or performing trained simulated dives of up to 2.25 min. Data from resting mothers showed the development of a bimodal or two-speed fetal heart rate pattern during late gestation. The mean faster and slower fetal heart rates at term were 125 ± 3.7 and 79 ± 3.1 (mean + SEM) respectively. The amount of fetal bradycardia observed increased steadily towards term, and fetal heart rate changes were not correlated with changes in maternal heart rate or maternal respiration. The bimodal fetal heart rate was also seen during the simulated dives, and no decrease in either the faster or slower heart rate was found. Heart rates from resting, unrestrained harbor seal pups were also studied. The pups displayed a bimodal heart rate similar to the fetuses' with the slower rate occurring during breath-holds. The bradycardia in the pups was equivalent to the slower fetal heart rate. These findings suggest that the regulatory mechanism that determines the apneic bradycardia in young harbor seals during non-stressful conditions develops in the last quarter of gestation.