Ventilatory and Metabolic Responses of Burrowing Owls, Athene cunicularia, to Moderate and Extreme Hypoxia: Analysis of the Hypoxic Ventilatory Threshold vs. Hemoglobin Oxygen Affinity Relationship in Birds

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We measured ventilation, oxygen consumption and blood gases in burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) breathing moderate and extreme hypoxic gas mixtures to determine their hypoxic ventilatory threshold (HVT) and to assess if they, like other birds and mammals, exhibit a relationship between HVT and hemoglobin O2 affinity (P50) of their blood. An earlier report of an attenuated ventilatory responsiveness of this species to hypoxia was enigmatic given the low O2 affinity (high P50) of burrowing owl hemoglobin. In the current study, burrowing owls breathing 11% and 9% O2 showed a significantly elevated total ventilation. The arterial partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2) at which ventilation is elevated above normoxic values in burrowing owls was 58 mm Hg. This threshold value conforms well to expectations based on the high P50 of their hemoglobin and the HVT vs. P50 relationship for birds developed in this study. Correcting for phylogenetic relatedness in the multi-species analysis had no effect on the HVT vs. P50 relationship. Also, because burrowing owls in this study did not show a hypometabolic response at any level of hypoxia (even at 9% O2); HVT described in terms of percent change in oxygen convection requirement is identical to that based on ventilation alone.