Heart rates of northern elephant seals diving at sea and during apnoea on land were monitored to test whether a cardiac response to submergence is an important factor in their ability to make repetitive, long-duration dives. Seven juvenile northern elephant seals were captured at Año Nuevo, CA, instrumented and translocated to release sites around Monterey Bay. Heart rate and dive depth were recorded using custom-designed data loggers and analogue tape monitors during the seals' return to Año Nuevo. Heart rates during apnoea and eupnoea were recorded from four of the seals after they hauled out on the beach. Diving patterns were very similar to those of naturally migrating juveniles. The heart rate response to apnoea at sea and on land was a prompt bradycardia, but only at sea was there an anticipatory tachycardia before breathing commenced. Heart rate at sea declined by 64% from the surface rate of 107 +/- 3 beats min-1 (mean +/- S.D.), while heart rate on land declined by 31% from the eupnoeic rate of 65 +/- 8 beats min-1. Diving heart rate was inversely related to dive duration in a non-linear fashion best described by a continuous, curvilinear model, while heart rate during apnoea on land was independent of the duration of apnoea. Occasionally, instantaneous heart rate fell as low as 3 beats min-1 during diving. Although bradycardia occurs in response to apnoea both at sea and on land, only at sea is heart rate apparently regulated to minimise eupnoeic time and to ration oxygen stores to ensure adequate supplies for the heart and brain not only as the dive progresses normally but also when a dive is abnormally extended.

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