When Terrie Williams began hearing about the wide range of symptoms experienced by patients with COVID-19, she saw a connection between the various ways the disease is affecting people and the many physiological adaptations that have enabled marine mammals to tolerate low oxygen levels during dives.
Williams, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, has spent decades studying the physiology of marine mammals and their extraordinary ability to perform strenuous activities while holding their breath for long periods under water.
“Diving marine mammals experience a lifetime of rapid physiological transitions between normal oxygenation and hypoxia [low oxygen levels],” Williams said. “They’ve got ways to protect themselves and allow their organs to keep functioning while holding their breath for hours at a time, but there’s a whole suite of biological adaptations that had to happen for them to be able to do that.”
Lacking those adaptations, humans