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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/345

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341
THE RESPIRATION OF AN INLAND LAKE

The absorption and distribution of oxygen constitute one of the fundamental problems of life for any large and active organism. The difficulty of solving the problem is increased by the fact that no large reserve stock of oxygen can be maintained. In the case of a human being there may a food supply in the tissues sufficient to sustain life for weeks, even though no new supply is taken in. There is water enough in the body to maintain life for days; but if the supply of oxygen is shut off, life can be continued only for a very few minutes on the stock of oxygen contained in the body. So narrow is the space between abundance of oxygen and death from oxygen starvation. In a cold-blooded animal—with which the lake ought to be compared—processes of respiration are slower, but the relative situation is not materially different. The result of these conditions is that in any large animal enormous surfaces must be provided for the absorption of oxygen and there must be a very perfect mechanism for its distribution. Such respiratory systems exist in a great variety of forms, many of which are extremely complex and efficient. In the case of man the absorbing surface of the lungs is said to amount to about two thousand square feet—an area as great as that of floor, ceiling and walls of a room 20 feet square and 15 feet high. The necessity for arrangements for a large absorbing surface increases with the size of the animal, since in a large organism the area of the general surface is far smaller in proportion to its mass than in a small organism of the same shape. In a lake, whose size is enormous as compared with that of any living being, the absorbing surface is very small as compared with its mass; being only the upper surface of the water. The lake is, therefore, at a great disadvantage in the matter of absorbing oxygen as compared with the animal. Still further, all higher animals, both cold-blooded and warm-blooded, contain in their blood some chemical substance which has a special affinity for oxygen and which can rapidly pick up large quantities of it. Such a substance is wholly lacking in the water of the lake, whose respiratory power is correspondingly small as regards both the rapidity with which oxygen can be taken up and the amount which can be absorbed. It is indeed true that water will absorb, according to the general laws of the absorption of gases, about twice as much oxygen as nitrogen under similar conditions. This fact allows the lake to take in a larger stock of oxygen than would otherwise be possible, and that part of the atmosphere which is dissolved in the lake contains about one third oxygen instead of one fifth, as is the case outside. But even this amount is very little in comparison with the enormous volumes which a substance like hemoglobin can take up. It is also true that the mass of the water of the lake, in comparison with the mass of the organisms which draw their oxygen from it, is relatively far greater than the mass of the blood