Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Olympic Athlete of the Animal Kingdom: The Circulatory System of a Horse (A Guest Post)

By Emily Fandrey

How do you judge the abilities of an athlete? Is it all about speed? What about endurance? Strength? How would you judge an animal that can run up to 48 kilometers per hour (30 mph), cover 48 kilometers (30 miles) in a day, or clear a 2.4 meter (8 foot) jump, all while carrying a human on its back? Because of these abilities, the horse (Equus caballus) is often considered to be one of the animal kingdom’s best athletes. The major factor behind horses’ advanced athleticism is their unique circulatory system, specialized for delivering large amounts of oxygen throughout the body.

Image by Paul Kehrer at Wikimedia Commons.

A horse’s circulatory system has three major players: the heart, the spleen, and the frog (and no, this has nothing to do with the animal frog, but rather a specialized unit of a horse’s hoof). Due to these three components, horses have one of the best aerobic capacities in the animal kingdom. Let’s look at a racehorse for example: During a race, a thoroughbred can reach a maximum oxygen capacity (the amount of oxygen the blood can carry) of 200 milliliters per kilogram per minute, meaning 200 milliliters of blood per kilogram of weight (or 3.1 ounces per pound) are transported to the body every minute! This is more than twice the oxygen capacity of the most elite human athlete!

This diagram illustrates the horse’s circulatory system,
including the heart, arteries, veins, and spleen. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

So let’s break down this superior aerobic system, starting with the horse heart. Typically, a horse’s heart weighs 1% of its total body weight; meaning if a horse weighs 450 kilograms (1000 pounds), its heart will be roughly 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds). If this was true for humans, a 68 kilogram (150 pound) human’s heart would be 0.68 kilograms (1.5 pounds), although the average human heart is only about 0.23 kilograms (half a pound). The horse’s heart functions very similarly to a human heart. It contains four chambers and is responsible for getting oxygen to the body by pumping the oxygen-filled blood. After the body systems have used the oxygen in the blood, this deoxygenated blood enters the heart and is sent to the lungs where the blood is resupplied with oxygen from breathing air. This oxygenated blood reenters the heart and is pumped back out to the body. Because of the size of their hearts, horses are able to supply large amounts of blood with oxygen to the body with each heartbeat, averaging a combined 38 liters (10 gallons) per minute (this is about ten times as much as a human).

Horses also have very different heart rates than humans during rest and exercise. A horse’s resting heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute (bpm), compared to the average human’s, which is 60-80 bpm. During exercise, a human’s heart rate is 90-170 bpm, depending on age. A horse’s heart rate, however, rises to 80 bpm during a walk, 130 bpm during a trot, 180 during a canter, and 240 bpm while galloping. At top speed, the fast beating heart of the horse is what allows the heart to pump much more blood to the body than a human, increasing their athletic abilities.

A diagram of how the horse’s frog sends blood back to heart quickly,
working against gravity. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

With the long legs of horses, the heart also has to work against gravity to get blood from the limbs back to the heart. To combat this, the horse has its “frog”. For a horse, the frog is a vessel-filled tissue structure on each of its four hooves. When weight is placed on the frog, this structure can help the heart work against gravity. How? When the horse’s hoof meets the ground, the ground will push up on the frog, resulting in the frog being compressed and squeezing blood in the vessels out and rapidly up the leg. The frog helps heart work against gravity by sending the blood up the leg and back to the heart, allowing for faster blood circulation, increasing the athleticism of the horse.

The last key factor to the horse’s circulatory system is the spleen. This organ improves aerobic capabilities and the horse’s athleticism. Now, the primary function of the horse’s spleen is to remove damaged blood cells. However, when a horse is relaxed, their spleen will fill with up to 30 liters (8 gallons) of oxygen-filled blood. And then, once the excitement of activities like running or jumping sparks, the spleen will contract and send up to 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of this stored blood back into circulation in mere seconds! So in seconds, the spleen is capable of almost doubling the maximum amount of oxygen the blood can carry, increasing the athleticism of the horse as well.

So if you ever need an excelling athlete on your team, consider an animal with a superior circulatory system: the horse. With a large and powerful heart capable of pumping large amounts of blood, a spleen to provide an extra burst of blood in seconds, and a “frog” to work against gravity, there is no wonder why horse is considered to be one of the world’s superior athletes.


Allen, K.J., Young, L.E., and Franklin, S.H. (2016). Evaluation of heart rate and rhythm during exercise. Equine Veterinary Education 28: 99-112. DOI: 10.1111/eve.12405.

Cardiovascular System (2007). In EQUINAvet.

Circulatory System of the Horse (2010). In Helpful Horse Hints.

Equine Circulatory System Vet, Horse First Aid (2012). In Equestrian and Horse.

Norton, J. (2013). The equine circulatory system. In EquiMed: Horse Health Matters.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Caught in My Web: Animal Reactions to A Solar Eclipse

Animation by Locutus Borg at Wikimedia Commons.
A solar eclipse is a rare event that can have dramatic effects not only on us people, but on animals as well. For this edition of Caught in My Web, we think about how animals may respond to such a rare celestial event.

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons.
1. National Geographic shares many ways animals are known to behave in strange ways in response to a solar eclipse.

2. Much of the effect of an eclipse on animal behavior is utter confusion, but many groups will be watching animals to see how they respond.

3. Researchers at the University of Nebraska will be collecting behavior data on GPS-tagged red-tailed hawks to see how the solar eclipse affects them.

4. Some nature centers are studying animal behavior during the eclipse.

5. If you found any animals that freaked out so badly as to injure themselves, check here for advice.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Drinking Beer Makes You More Attractive… To Mosquitoes

Summer is a time of backyard bar-b-ques, camping, baseball games, beer, and mosquitoes. Ugh, mosquitoes! Have you ever noticed that when a bunch of us are hanging out together outside, some of us get eaten alive by those pesky buggers while others are hardly touched at all? It turns out, differences in how much alcohol we have imbibed may be a factor.

An Anopheles gambiae mosquito ready for a meal. Photo by James D. Gathany
at the Public Health Image Library at Wikimedia Commons.

“No! Say it ain’t so!”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, so I’ll let the scientific evidence speak for itself.

A research team from the French Research Institute for Development, including Thierry Lefèvre, Louis-Clément Gouagna, Eric Elguero, Didier Fontenille, François Renaud, Carlo Costantini, and Frédéric Thomas, and Kounbobr Roch Dabiré, from the Institute for Research in Health Sciences in Burkina Faso set out to test whether people were more attractive to female mosquitoes after drinking a beer compared to beforehand. They only tested females because only female mosquitoes bite, requiring extra protein for their eggs.

The researchers put groups of 50 hungry female mosquitoes into the end of a special Y-shaped maze that let them fly in the direction of one of two odors. At the end of one arm of the Y-maze was a fan, simply blowing outdoor air through a tent and into the apparatus. At the other end of the Y-maze was a fan blowing air through a tent past a shirtless man and into the apparatus. This shirtless man had either not had anything to drink recently, or had recently drunk either a liter of beer or a liter of water. Between the starting chamber and both ends of the arms of the Y-maze were traps that would capture mosquitoes that had chosen to head that direction (lucky for the shirtless men). The number of mosquitoes caught in both traps combined (compared to the total of 50 that was initially released) was called mosquito activation, and reflected how many mosquitoes were motivated to take off and fly upwind. The proportion of mosquitoes caught in the volunteer-bated trap compared to those caught in both traps combined was called mosquito orientation, and reflected the attractiveness of the volunteer’s odor compared to the control odor.

Image A shows the two tents: one in which the man-bait sat (having consumed beer or water), and the other with no one in it. Air from each tent blew threw a tube (seen in picture B) and then into the building, past the traps and into the downwind box, where the mosquito starting-line was located (seen in picture C). Photos from Lefèvre et al., 2010.

The mosquitoes significantly increased both activation and orientation in response to the beer-drinking volunteers, but not in response to the water-drinking volunteers. That is to say, that the smell of someone that has had a beer motivates more mosquitoes to actively pursue them, and makes them more of a focused target of the mosquitoes. The researchers believe there is an interaction between how our bodies naturally smell and how our bodies break down beer that increases the attractiveness of our odors to mosquitoes. People that were more attractive to mosquitoes before they drank were also more attractive to mosquitoes after they drank. But interestingly, people that were warmer or gave off more CO2 were not more attractive to mosquitoes.

You should know that this research is much more important than just being a drag on your summer bar-b-que. The particular mosquito species that these researchers studied was Anopheles gambiae, the primary vector for malaria in Africa. They did this study in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa with a high rate of malaria, using a local beer called dolo. Dolo, a fermented sorghum beer with low (3%) alcohol content, is the most common alcoholic beverage in Burkina Faso. So if you are in a place with a high rate of malaria, knowing that you should take extra precautions against mosquitoes when you drink could be a life-saver.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Lefèvre, T., Gouagna, L.C., Dabiré, K.R., Elguero, E., Fontenille, D., Renaud, F., Costantini, C. and Thomas, F. (2010). Beer consumption increases human attractiveness to malaria mosquitoes. PloS one, 5(3), e9546.