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Respiratory Systems in Other Animals

The need to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide is almost universal among organisms. The movement of these gases between an organism and its environment, called gas exchange, is accomplished in a variety of ways by different organisms. In one-celled aquatic organisms, such as protozoans, and in seaweeds, sponges, jellyfish, and other aquatic organisms that are only a few cell layers thick, oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse directly between the water and cells. Diffusion works for these simple organisms because all cells of the organism are within a few millimeters of an oxygen source.

Animals with many cell layers cannot rely on diffusion because cells several layers deep in the body would die before oxygen reached them. As a result, for gas exchange, more-complex animals require special respiratory organs, such as gills or lungs, in combination with circulatory structures, such as blood, blood vessels, and a heart. The earliest development of these gas exchange structures is seen in roundworms, microscopic invertebrates abundant in water and moist soil. In roundworms, oxygen diffuses through the skin into a fluid that fills an internal cavity. As the worm moves, the fluid sloshes around in the cavity, bringing oxygen into contact with the digestive system, reproductive organs, and other structures in the cavity. This primitive circulatory system is called an open circulatory system because the fluid is not contained within vessels. In clams an open circulatory system is combined with a heart that pumps fluid around the internal cavity. Clams also use gills, thin-walled filaments that are extensions of the body surface. Gills provide a more extensive surface area for gas exchange than the body surface alone, enabling clams and larger organisms to obtain the amount of oxygen they need. Fish have gills, a heart, and a closed circulatory system, one in which blood is transported in vessels by the pumping action of the heart.

Relatively simple land-dwelling organisms, including some plants, fungi, and animals such as flatworms, accomplish gas exchange by diffusion. More-complex organisms, however, rely on specialized respiratory structures. Instead of gills, whose delicate filaments collapse unless supported by water, land animals use lungs. Located inside the body, lungs are formed by the infolding of membranes. The folds form a single balloon-like sac, as in amphibians; they may be arranged in stacks, as in the book lungs of spiders; or they are composed of millions of tiny air sacs, such as the lungs of most mammals. In virtually all vertebrates, a heart and a closed circulatory system work with the lungs to deliver oxygen and to remove carbon dioxide from cells.

Insects have a unique respiratory system made up of small tubes called tracheae. The tracheae connect all parts of the body to small openings on the surface of the insect. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported through the tracheae, and from the tracheae to the blood of the insect by diffusion. The blood of most insects is contained in an open circulatory system and is moved around the internal organs by a heart.

The respiratory system of birds, adapted for flight, is very different from that of land-bound animals. The lungs have two openings, one for taking in oxygen-filled air; the other for expelling carbon dioxide-laden air. Rather than ending up in alveoli, the air loops through the lungs so that the oxygen flow through the lungs is continuous. This design enables birds to obtain the amount of oxygen they need to power the extremely high energy demands of flight.