How sea cows survived in the Arctic

The substitution of a single building block in the hemoglobin protein of extinct Steller’s sea cows allowed them to adapt to the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean.

Steller’s sea cow skeleton. Image credit: Public domain (CC0)

In 1741, shipwrecked naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller made detailed observations of large marine mammals grazing on seaweed in the shallow waters surrounding a remote island in the North Pacific Ocean. Within thirty years, these ‘Steller’s sea cows’ had been hunted to extinction. Unlike their remaining tropical relatives – dugongs and manatees – Steller’s sea cows were specialized to cold, sub-Arctic environments. Measuring up to 10 meters long, they were much larger than other sea cow species. This, along with having very thick skin, helped them to reduce heat loss.

Previous work showed that the hemoglobin protein – which binds to and carries oxygen around mammalian bodies – of Steller’s sea cows had a decreased affinity for oxygen, resulting in greater delivery of oxygen to organs and tissues. It was thought that this could be an adaptation to fuel heightened metabolic heat production in cold conditions. Studies of ancient DNA also identified the substitution of a single building block in the Steller’s sea cow hemoglobin protein that is not present in other mammals and was suspected to underlie this modification.

To determine how this unique substitution affects Steller’s sea cow hemoglobin function – and whether it contributed to their ability to live in cold environments – Signore et al. generated hemoglobin proteins of Steller’s sea cows, dugongs and Florida manatees. Testing their biochemical properties showed that this single exchange profoundly alters multiple aspects of how the Steller’s sea cow hemoglobin works.

Alongside reducing hemoglobin’s oxygen affinity, the Steller’s sea cow substitution also makes the protein more soluble, potentially increasing the level of hemoglobin within red blood cells. Additionally, it eliminates hemoglobin sensitivity to a molecule involved in oxygen binding – known as DPG – saving energy by no longer requiring production of this molecule. Furthermore, the same substitution makes hemoglobin less sensitive to changes in temperature, which would have helped to safeguard the delivery of oxygen to cool limbs and other extremities, reducing costly heat loss. Together, these changes in hemoglobin would have helped the Steller’s sea cow to more efficiently transport oxygen around the body. Importantly, generating and testing Steller’s sea cow pre-natal hemoglobins suggested this substitution may have also helped to enhance the fetal growth rate of these immense marine mammals by improving gas exchange between the mother and fetus.

Signore et al. have revealed how a mutated form of hemoglobin allowed an extinct mammal to adapt to an extreme environment. Similar methods could be used to understand the physiological attributes of other extinct animals. In the future, this increased understanding of hemoglobin mutations could aid the development of human hemoglobin substitutes for therapeutic uses.