A Natural History of the Heart

A Natural History of the Heart
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

In April 2014, nine blue whales perished off the shores of after getting trapped in the ice packs of the Cabot Strait. One of these leviathans, measuring 76 feet long, eventually turned up in the frigid waters of the tiny outport of Rocky Harbour. A team from the Royal Ontario Museum arrived to salvage its organs. (Studies of the gross anatomy of the whale are often thwarted by the speedy putrefaction and spontaneous explosion of beached specimens.) They succeeded in extracting the heart, which was underwhelming in appearance. As Bill Schutt observes in his fascinating “Pump,” it looked like “a four-hundred-pound flesh-colored soup dumpling.” While still massive, it was smaller than expected, closer in size to a golf cart than a Cadillac. Its podgy appearance belied its superb adaptation to the demands of its bathypelagic environment. Unlike the rigid human heart, the heart of the blue whale is an amorphous bag of muscle, able to shrink and still pump blood under the immense pressures of the ocean depths.

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