Isaac Yuen

4 Lessons on Breathing from the More-than-Human World

Plus, oh, about sixty breath facts for you to share at cool parties

1. Inhale

An African elephant’s trunk can create suction exceeding the speed of the Shinkansen. Reindeer noses can raise the temperature of incoming air by eighty degrees in less than a second. The convoluted sinuses of rhino-sized ankylosaurs may have served as air conditioners for cooling their walnut-sized brains. The inflatable nostrils of saiga antelopes may have evolved to filter dust clouds generated during their mass migrations. Two-thirds of the global saiga population died in 2015 due to bacterial nasal infections. Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys reputedly sit with their heads between their knees when it rains to avoid getting water in their nostrils and sneezing. Sternutation is a biological response to reboot the nasal chamber after being overwhelmed with stimuli. The American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy cataloged fifty-two unique cases of sneezing-related injuries between 1948 to 2018. “Holding it in” can increase pressure on internal airways by over 2,000 percent. Biologists injected drugs to trigger sneezes in freshwater sponges to understand how creatures without nervous systems respond to their environment. Researchers have recently described fossilized pollen in explosive mid-discharge from its flower.


2. Respire

A cheetah can take 150 breaths per minute while in full sprint. One distinguishing feature of mammals is the presence of a flexible diaphragm muscle. Approximately four thousand people in the United States are hospitalized for hiccups each year. Intractable hiccups are defined as cases lasting more than a month. In clinical studies, pigs and mice have shown the ability to temporarily breathe through their intestines. Dojo loaches and peppered catfish can absorb oxygen through their hindguts while in anoxic environments. The Mary River turtle, also known as the green-hair turtle, also known as the bum-breathing turtle, possesses gill-like structures near its cloaca that allow it to lie submerged for days. Trilobite fossils preserved in fool’s gold reveal well-developed gills on their upper leg branches. The Borneo flat-headed frog is the first recorded frog to have no lungs, breathing exclusively through its skin. A ten-celled parasitic relative of jellyfish living in salmon muscle is the first documented animal to have no need to breathe at all.


Isaac Yuen 


3. Suspend

Apnea can be defined as the temporary hiatus of breathing. Gray seal pups that are more keen to play in pools of water become better at holding their breath as adults. Some marine mammals can “download” oxygen directly into their skeletal muscles to stay active longer underwater. The Bajau people of Southeast Asia, or the sea nomads, possess enlarged spleens as an adaptation to their free-diving lifestyles. The water anole of Costa Rica can attach a bubble to the top of its head as a makeshift scuba tank. American alligators can shift the internal positions of their lungs to perform silent underwater maneuvers: backward to dive, forward to surface, and sideways to roll. The deep-sea coffinfish is the first documented fish to hold its breath in water for up to four minutes. Grasshoppers routinely stop breathing through their spiracles to reduce oxidative damage to their tissues. Researchers use obese Yucatan miniature pigs to study obstructive sleep apnea. Vibrations generated by heavy snoring can damage the upper respiratory airways and inhibit healing processes. Training breast cancer patients to perform five-minute breath holds can increase the precision of radiation therapy. Weddell seal pups need to breathe every six minutes when first learning to navigate under Antarctic ice sheets. A common cause of death among young seals is drowning from being unable to reach a breathing hole in time.


4. Exhale

Ancient volcanic eruptions may have fertilized coastal areas and allowed the first oxygen-producing lifeforms to flourish. Life may have metabolized nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, during the period in Earth’s history known as “the Boring Billion.” The time of the Permian mass extinction may have also been the smelliest, as microbes expelled hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. Physicists have been able to recreate laboratory versions of solar winds along with the plasma “burps” that fuel them. Evidence points to traces of a massive carbon dioxide release deep within the Southern Ocean at the end of the last Ice Age. King penguin colonies release prodigious amounts of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, in their droppings. Feeding cattle seaweed supplements can significantly reduce the methane they generate from belching and flatulence. Unlike human adults, human babies laugh both as they inhale and exhale, similar to chimpanzees. Belugas have been observed to blow four types of bubbles through their mouths and blowholes, mostly for fun.


Bring home Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-Than-Human World, and be amazed!

From Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-Than-Human World by Isaac Yuen. West Virginia University Press, 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Isaac Yuen. Reprinted with permission.


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Isaac Yuen is a first-generation Hong Kong Canadian author. His work has appeared in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Orion, Shenandoah, Tin House, and numerous other publications. He has held residencies and fellowships at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature in Switzerland and the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Institute of Advanced Studies in Germany. Utter, Earth is his first solo book.