Morphological and morphometric specializations of the lung of the Andean goose, Chloephaga melanoptera: A lifelong high-altitude resident

John N. Maina, Kevin G. McCracken, Beverly Chua, Julia M. York, William K. Milsom

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16 Scopus citations


High altitude flight in rarefied, extremely cold and hypoxic air is a very challenging activity. Only a few species of birds can achieve it. Hitherto, the structure of the lungs of such birds has not been studied. This is because of the rarity of such species and the challenges of preparing well-fixed lung tissue. Here, it was posited that in addition to the now proven physiological adaptations, high altitude flying birds will also have acquired pulmonary structural adaptations that enable them to obtain the large amounts of oxygen (O2 ) needed for flight at high elevation, an environment where O2 levels are very low. The Andean goose (Chloephaga melanoptera) normally resides at altitudes above 3000 meters and flies to elevations as high as 6000 meters where O2 becomes limiting. In this study, its lung was morphologically- and morphometrically investigated. It was found that structurally the lungs are exceptionally specialized for gas exchange. Atypically, the infundibulae are well-vascularized. The mass-specific volume of the lung (42.8 cm -1 ), the massspecific respiratory surface area of the blood-gas (tissue) barrier (96.5 cm2 .g-1 ) and the mass-specific volume of the pulmonary capillary blood (7.44 cm3 .kg-1 ) were some of the highest values so far reported in birds. The pulmonary structural specializations have generated a mass-specific total (overall) pulmonary morphometric diffusing capacity of the lung for oxygen (DLo2 ) of 0.119 mlO2.sec -1 .mbar-1 .kg-1 , a value that is among some of the highest ones in birds that have been studied. The adaptations of the lung of the Andean goose possibly produce the high O2 conductance needed to live and fly at high altitude.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0174395
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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