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The comparative physiology of seemingly disparate organisms often serves as a surprising pathway to biological enlightenment. How appropriate, then, that Robert Elsner sheds new light on the remarkable physiology of diving seals through comparison with members of our own species on quests toward enlightenment: meditating yogis.
As Elsner reveals, survival in extreme conditions such as those faced by seals is often not about running for cover or coming up for air, but rather about working within the confines of an environment and suppressing normal bodily function. Animals in this withdrawn state display reduced resting metabolic rates and are temporarily less dependent upon customary levels of oxygen. For diving seals – creatures especially well-adapted to prolonged submersion in the ocean's cold depths – such periods of rest lengthen dive endurance. But while human divers share modest, brief adjustments of suppressed metabolism with diving seals, it is the practiced response achieved during deep meditation that is characterized by metabolic rates well below normal levels, sometimes even approaching those of non-exercising diving seals. And the comparison does not end here: hibernating animals, infants during birth, near-drowning victims, and clams at low tide all also display similarly reduced metabolisms.
By investigating these states – and the regulatory functions that help maintain them – across a range of species, Elsner offers suggestive insight into the linked biology of survival and well-being.
Robert Elsner is professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies the physiology of marine mammals. He is coauthor of Diving and Asphyxia: A Comparative Study of Animals and Man.
"There are so few books dealing specifically with diving in animals, and such a book is overdue. There is no question that Elsner has the longest term association with diving physiology of any other living physiologist or person. Diving Seals and Meditating Yogis is an opportunity to get the written word and perspective from one of the seasoned masters of this small and eclectic field of researchers."
– Gerald L. Kooyman, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, author of Diverse Divers: Physiology and Behavior and Weddell Seal: Consummate Diver
"One of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. Elsner's papers on metabolic regulation in diving seals, meditating yogis, and diving ama are considered individual classics; a book that compiles this work into central unifying themes is indeed exciting. I found each of the topics addressed amazing, from the seals and yogis, to the concepts of metabolic retreats, pre- and post-conditioning of organs, and comparative aspects of hypoxia tolerance, and more. The book is surprising in the range of topics explored. Written by a well-respected scientist who is considered the premier researcher on the topic of metabolic suppression in mammals, Diving Seals and Meditating Yogis is intriguing, timely, and potentially of broad interest to the general public as well as scientists. The combination of amazing science with human health implications makes this book a natural for engaging students across biology, medicine, and beyond. I feel much wiser for having read it."
– Terrie Williams, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Hunter's Breath: On Expedition with the Weddell Seals of the Antarctic