Spectacularly robust! Tensegrity principle explains the mechanical strength of the avian lung

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Among the air-breathing vertebrates, the respiratory system of birds, the lung-air sac system, is remarkably complex and singularly efficient. The most perplexing structural property of the avian lung pertains to its exceptional mechanical strength, especially that of the minuscule terminal respiratory units, the air- and the blood capillaries. In different species of birds, the air capillaries range in diameter from 3 to 20 μm: the blood capillaries are in all cases relatively smaller. Over and above their capacity to withstand enormous surface tension forces at the air-tissue interface, the air capillaries resist mechanical compression (parabronchial distending pressure) as high as 20 cm H2O (2 kPa). The blood capillaries tolerate a pulmonary arterial vascular pressure of 24.1 mmHg (3.2 kPa) and vascular resistance of 22.5 mmHg (3 kPa) without distending. The design of the avian respiratory system fundamentally stems from the rigidity (strength) of the lung. The gas exchanger (the lung) is uncoupled from the ventilator (the air sacs), allowing the lung (the paleopulmonic parabronchi) to be ventilated continuously and unidirectionally by synchronized bellows like action of the air sacs. Since during the ventilation of the lung the air capillaries do not have to be distended (dilated), i.e., surface tension force does not have to be overcome (as would be the case if the lung was compliant), extremely intense subdivision of the exchange tissue was possible. Minuscule terminal respiratory units developed, producing a vast respiratory surface area in a limited lung volume. I make a case that a firm (rigid) rib cage, a lung tightly held by the ribs and the horizontal septum, a lung directly attached to the trunk, specially formed and compactly arranged parabronchi, intertwined atrial muscles, and tightly set air capillaries and blood capillaries form an integrated hierarchy of discrete network system of tension and compression, a tensegrity (tensional integrity) array, which absorbs, transmits, and dissipates stress, stabilizing (strengthening) the lung and its various structural components.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalRespiratory Physiology and Neurobiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Air capillaries
  • Birds
  • Blood capillaries
  • Gas exchange
  • Lung
  • Strength
  • Tensegrity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology
  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Spectacularly robust! Tensegrity principle explains the mechanical strength of the avian lung'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this