Original Paper


, Volume 95, Issue 9, pp 793-801

First online:

Decompression syndrome and the evolution of deep diving physiology in the Cetacea

  • Brian Lee BeattyAffiliated withNew York College of Osteopathic Medicine Email author 
  • , Bruce M. RothschildAffiliated withDivision of Vertebrate Paleontology, University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research CenterDepartment of Anthropology, University of KansasArthritis Center NEONortheastern Ohio Universities College of MedicineCarnegie Museum of Natural History

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Whales repetitively dive deep to feed and should be susceptible to decompression syndrome, though they are not known to suffer the associated pathologies. Avascular osteonecrosis has been recognized as an indicator of diving habits of extinct marine amniotes. Vertebrae of 331 individual modern and 996 fossil whales were subjected to macroscopic and radiographic examination. Avascular osteonecrosis was found in the Oligocene basal odontocetes (Xenorophoidea) and in geologically younger mysticetes, such as Aglaocetus [a sister taxon to Balaenopteridae + (Balaenidae + Eschrichtiidae) clade]. These are considered as early “experiments” in repetitive deep diving, indicating that they independently converged on their similar specialized diving physiologies.


Avascular osteonecrosis Behaviorally induced paleopathology Diving physiology Cetacea Mysticeti Odontoceti