Anatomy of the heart of the leatherback turtle

Bjarke Jensen, Henrik Lauridsen, Grahame J.W. Webb, Tobias Wang

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    Non-crocodylian reptiles have hearts with a single ventricle, which is partially separated by a muscular ridge that provides some separation of blood flows. An exceptional situation exists in monitor lizards and pythons, where the ventricular left side generates a much higher systolic blood pressure than the right side, thus resembling mammals and birds. This functional division of the ventricle depends on a large muscular ridge and may relate to high metabolic demand. The large leatherback turtle (<1000 kg), with its extensive migrations and elevated body temperatures, may have similar adaptations. We report on the anatomy of the hearts of two leatherback turtles. One stranded in Ballum, Denmark in 2020, and was examined in detail, supplemented by observations and photos of an additional stranding specimen from Canada. The external morphology of the leatherback heart resembles that of other turtles, but it is large. We made morphometric measurements of the Ballum heart and created an interactive 3D model using high-resolution MRI. The volume of the ventricle was 950 ml, from a turtle of 300 kg, which is proportionally almost twice as large as in other reptiles. The Ballum heart was compared to MRI scans of the hearts of a tortoise, a python, and a monitor lizard. Internally, the leatherback heart is typical of non-crocodylian reptiles and did not contain the well-developed septation found in pythons and monitor lizards. We conclude that if leatherback turtles have exceptional circulation needs, they are sustained with a relatively large but otherwise typical non-crocodylian reptile heart.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)535-544
    Number of pages10
    JournalJournal of Anatomy
    Issue number2
    Early online dateApr 2022
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022


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