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Learning Comparative Physiology and Anatomy in Riviera Maya

A white sandy beach in Riviera Maya, Mexico. A 5 star hotel with world class food. Beautiful tropical skies. Marine mammals swimming leisurely in a lagoon within a 3 minute walk. Your typical university course setting?

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PSL 379 - Class of 2015 with a gentle manatee! Course instructors Carin Wittnich (far left front row) and Jim Goltz (far right back row).

Welcome to Physiology’s PSL 379! This course, offered through the Department of Physiology and in coordination with the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society (OERS), is directed and taught by Dr. Carin Wittnich (Surgery & Physiology) with assistance from Dr. Jim Goltz (OERS veterinarian). This unique Physiology field course gives future doctors, physiologists, anatomists, and ecologists the opportunity to understand the unique physiology of 3 marine mammals (manatee, seals and dolphins) and apply this knowledge when comparing it to human physiology/anatomy.

What is the connection to surgery you may ask? Numerous applications of aquatic adaptations exist in humans and may influence how surgery may be performed. A fetus lives in a fluid environment for 9 months but must suddenly support itself once it leaves the womb. Surgery performed on that fetus/newborn may need to consider these adaptations and changes that occur after birth to better optimize outcomes. Another example is a reflex called the Mammalian Diving Reflex that occurs when a body is suddenly immersed in cold water, causing the body to ‘shut down’ certain parts to preserve itself. Hypothermia has been used in cardiopulmonary bypass surgery for decades and is a key component in protecting the body. Studying these adaptations to aquatic life may lead to improving surgical outcomes.

During this course, students conduct their own physiology based research as they spend time in and out of the water observing these amazing marine mammals. The students come away with a new appreciation of performing research that will hopefully assist them in future career opportunities such as surgery and medicine.


Class collecting morphometric data from a manatee. Dr. Wittnich on right stabilizing the tail

This course was recognized with the Department of Physiology’s award for Innovative Course Design (2012), and the Faculty of Medicine Excellence in Undergraduate Laboratory Teaching in Life Sciences Award (2013). Dr. Wittnich has also won several graduate and undergraduate awards for courses she directs or teaches.

Carin Wittnich, Professor
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto

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