Bajau 'sea nomads' developed enlarged spleens for deep diving

The new study found that the spleens of the Bajau people are 50 per cent larger than those of their land-dwelling neighbours the Saluan. This image shows a Bajau diver displaying a traditional wooden diving mask

The group is known as "sea nomads", given their sea-dependent traditions: The Bajau spend almost two-thirds of their work day in the water diving to collect crustaceans and sea cucumbers or spearfish octopuses and other aquatic food at depths as far as 230 feet, researchers said. Members of the Bajau can dive up to 70 meters with nothing more than a set of weights and a pair of wooden goggles.

But while the Bajau people's talents have always been known, it was unclear whether the skill was the result of practice, as in the case of the excellent underwater vision of Thai "sea nomad" children, or the result of adaptations which have their roots in the Bajau people's DNA.

The evolutionary quirk, developed over hundreds or thousands of years, enables the Bajau tribe of "fish people" in Indonesia to work eight-hour diving shifts to spear fish and octopus for their families. Their fascinating abilities have prompted the University of Copenhagen and the University of California-Berkeley to conduct scientific studies on the anatomy of the Bajau people and the results were shared on the Cell. "There's nothing like seeing them in the water".

Anthropologist Cynthia Beall from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, isn't yet convinced Ilardo and her colleagues fully understand what's happened with the Bajau.

A second genetic adaptation associated with the Bajau involves the constriction of blood vessels in the extremities to preserve oxygen for vital organs. Lastly, the spleen contracts. Ilardo measured their spleen sizes using an ultrasound machine and took saliva samples for genomic sequencing. "I hadn't really heard much about the spleen". Its roles include filtering out old cells and supporting the immune system.

Among populations living at high altitudes, who also have to cope with low oxygen levels, researchers have previously found different genetic adaptations that converge on the same phenotype, all in some way affecting red blood cell count, notes Theodore Schurr, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. She explained that the connection between genetics, enlarged spleen and diving has not been made before in humans.

The brand new examine discovered that the spleens of the Bajau individuals are 50 per cent bigger than these of their land-dwelling neighbours, the Saluan.

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But while the Bajau people's talents have always been known, it was unclear whether the skill was the result of practice. Ilardo chose to see whether Bajau spleens were similarly special. The gene is thought to alter spleen size by adjusting thyroid hormone levels.

"We believe that in the Bajau they have an adaptation that increases Thyroid hormone levels and therefore increases their spleen size", added Miss Ilardo.

Dr. Rodney C. Jubilado from the University of Hawaii who was not a part of the study stated that he first aw the Bajau people when he lived on the Samal Island in the Philippines and was always "fascinated" by them. "There we saw this hugely significant difference", she says. Moon studies how the human body responds to both high altitudes and extreme depths.

In mice, "PDE10A is known for regulating a thyroid hormone that controls spleen size, lending support for the idea that the Bajau might have evolved the spleen size necessary to sustain their long and frequent dives, ' said the study".

They spend 60 percent of their daily working time underwater and can stay underwater for up to 13 minutes at a time, the study said. "They are just spending an extraordinarily long time underwater compared to their recovery time". Their heart rates slow; blood is shunted into the body's core, and the spleen contracts, releasing some of its store of oxygenated red blood cells.

"They're explorers, so I think they're inherently curious and want to know more about the world, including about their own biology", she says.

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