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Underwater breathing: the mechanics of plastron respiration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2008

Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, USA
Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, USA


The rough, hairy surfaces of many insects and spiders serve to render them water-repellent; consequently, when submerged, many are able to survive by virtue of a thin air layer trapped along their exteriors. The diffusion of dissolved oxygen from the ambient water may allow this layer to function as a respiratory bubble or ‘plastron’, and so enable certain species to remain underwater indefinitely. Maintenance of the plastron requires that the curvature pressure balance the pressure difference between the plastron and ambient. Moreover, viable plastrons must be of sufficient area to accommodate the interfacial exchange of O2 and CO2 necessary to meet metabolic demands. By coupling the bubble mechanics, surface and gas-phase chemistry, we enumerate criteria for plastron viability and thereby deduce the range of environmental conditions and dive depths over which plastron breathers can survive. The influence of an external flow on plastron breathing is also examined. Dynamic pressure may become significant for respiration in fast-flowing, shallow and well-aerated streams. Moreover, flow effects are generally significant because they sharpen chemical gradients and so enhance mass transfer across the plastron interface. Modelling this process provides a rationale for the ventilation movements documented in the biology literature, whereby arthropods enhance plastron respiration by flapping their limbs or antennae. Biomimetic implications of our results are discussed.

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