Structural and functional development of the respiratory system in a newborn marsupial with cutaneous gas exchange

Shannon J Simpson, Sharon J. Flecknoe, Robin D. Clugston, John J. Greer, Stuart B. Hooper, Peter B Frappell

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19 Citations (Scopus)


Marsupials are born with structurally immature lungs and rely, to varying degrees, on cutaneous gas exchange.With a gestation of 13 d and a birth weight of 13 mg, the fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) is one of the smallest and most immature marsupial newborns. We determined that the skin is almost solely responsible for gas exchange in the early neonatal period. Indeed, fewer than 35% of newborn dunnarts were observed to make any respiratory effort on the day of birth, with pulmonary ventilation alone not meeting the demand for oxygen until approximately 35 d postpartum. Despite the lack of pulmonary ventilation, the phrenic nerve had made contact with the diaphragm, and the respiratory epithelium was sufficiently developed to support gas exchange on the day of birth. Both type I and type II (surfactant-producing) alveolar epithelial cells were present, with fewer than 7% of the cells resembling undifferentiated alveolar epithelial precursor cells. The type I epithelial cells did, however, display thickened cytoplasmic extensions, leading to a high diffusion distance for oxygen. In addition, the architecture of the lung was immature, resembling the early canalicular stage, with alveolarization not commencing until 45 d postpartum. The pulmonary vasculature was also immature, with a centrally positioned singlecapillary layer not evident until 100 d postbirth. These structural limitations may impede efficient pulmonary gas exchange, forcing the neonatal fat-tailed dunnart to rely predominately on its skin, a phenomenon supported by a low metabolic rate and small size.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)634-649
Number of pages16
JournalPhysiological and Biochemical Zoology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011

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