External respiration, commonly known as breathing, is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between an animal and its environment. Most animals use specialized organs or organ systems, such as lungs, trachea, or gills, for external respiration.
In all cases, exchange of gases between the environment and an animal occurs by diffusion through a wet surface on the animal which is permeable to oxygen and carbon dioxide. Diffusion is the random movement of molecules and causes a net movement of molecules from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration. Thus, oxygen moves into an organism because its concentration is lower inside than in the environment (air or water); carbon dioxide moves out of an organism because its concentration is higher inside than in the environment.
Different organisms have different mechanisms for extracting oxygen from their environments. Below, animal-gas exchange mechanisms have been classified into five categories.
- Direct diffusion. Sponges, jellyfish, and terrestrial flatworms use this primitive method. In direct diffusion, oxygen diffuses from the environment through cells on the animal's surface and then diffuses to individual cells inside. The primitive animals that use this method do not have respiratory organs. Obviously, an animal with small surface areas and large volume cannot rely on direct diffusion, since little oxygen would reach the interior of the body. Microbes, fungi, and plants all obtain the oxygen they use for cellular respiration by direct diffusion through their surfaces.
- Diffusion into blood. Annelids (segmented worms) and amphibians use this method. In this method, oxygen diffuses through a moist layer of epidermal cells on the body surface and from there through capillary walls and into the blood stream. Once oxygen is in the blood, it moves throughout the body to different tissues and cells. While this method does not rely upon respiratory organs and is thus quite primitive, it is somewhat more advanced than direct diffusion.
- Tracheae. Insects and terrestrial arthropods use this method. In tracheal respiration, air moves through openings in the body surface called spiracles and then into special tubes called tracheae (singular, trachea) which extend into the body. The tracheae divide into many small branches which contact the muscles and organs. In small insects, air moves into the tracheae passively, whereas in large insects, body movements facilitate tracheal air movement. An advantage of tracheal respiration is that it provides oxygen directly to the muscles. Muscle cells use this oxygen, together with the carbohydrates and other energetic molecules in the hemolymph (insect blood), to generate the energy needed for flight.
- Gills. Fish and other aquatic animals use this method. Gills are specialized tissues with many infoldings, each covered by a thin layer of cells and impregnated with blood capillaries. They take up oxygen dissolved in water and expel carbon dioxide dissolved in blood. Gills work by a mechanism called countercurrent exchange, in which blood and water flow in discrete pathways and opposite directions. This allows gills to more efficiently extract oxygen from water and expel carbondioxide into the water. Certain details of gill anatomy differ among different species.
- Lungs. Terrestrial vertebrates use this method. Lungs are special organs in the body cavity that are composed of many small chambers impregnated with blood capillaries. After air enters the lungs, oxygen diffuses into the blood stream through the walls of these capillaries. It then moves from the lung capillaries to the different muscles and organs of the body. Humans and other mammals have lungs in which air moves in and out through the same pathway. In contrast, birds have more specialized lungs which use a mechanism called cross-current exchange. Like the countercurrent exchange mechanism of gills, air flows through the crosscurrent exchange system of bird lungs in one direction only, making for more efficient oxygen exchange.