Every breath you take


Tomorrow afternoon the Museum will host talks, tours and a dance performance as part of the Breath Festival, a unique series of events coordinated by the Oxford University Hospitals Artlink programme. To coincide with the festival we have put together a special display in our changing Presenting… case, all about breath and breathing across the animal kingdom.

There’s something of the Halloween macabre about the display too, with its pink-coloured lungs and eviscerated bodies suspended in spirit. Here’s a taster of the display, but to see the full selection head down to the Museum either for the Breath Festival tomorrow, Saturday 1 November, or at any time during the rest of the month.

Lungs of a lizard, goose and duck.
Lungs of a lizard, goose and duck

The breath of life
All animals breathe to obtain oxygen for their bodies and to expel carbon dioxide, but there are many different ways of breathing: from the book lungs of scorpions to the gills of fishes and the true lungs of mammals. Terrestrial animals generally take in oxygen from the air, while for aquatic animals it usually comes from the water.

Crocodile and alligator lungs
Crocodile and alligator lungs

Some aquatic animals, such as sponges and jellyfish, take in oxygen by diffusion through their body wall. Others have specialist organs such as gills. But not all aquatic animals take in dissolved oxygen. Many insects, including diving beetles, have wing cases or hairy bodies that allow them to carry a bubble of air with them when they dip beneath the water’s surface. Aquatic mammals, including seals and whales, must come to the surface to breathe, and often have special adaptations for this.

Certain terrestrial animals, such as earthworms and amphibians, can breathe through their skins, but amphibians have simple lungs as well. All reptiles, mammals and birds breathe using lungs; in birds there is also a system of air sacs and air spaces within the bones that make breathing more efficient. Insects breathe through branching tubes called tracheae, while arachnids use folded structures known as book lungs.

The evolutionary adaptations of this most basic life function are many and varied: a simple breath is not so simple after all.

Visitors pick out their favourite specimen
Visitors pick out their favourite specimen

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer

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