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High heart rates in hunting porpoises

Cite this dataset

McDonald, Birgitte et al. (2021). High heart rates in hunting porpoises [Dataset]. Dryad.


The impressive breath-hold capabilities of marine mammals are facilitated by both enhanced O2 stores and reductions in the rate of O2 consumption via peripheral vasoconstriction and bradycardia, coined the dive response. Many studies have focused on the extreme role of the dive response in maximizing dive duration in marine mammals, but few have addressed how these adjustments may compromise the capability to hunt, digest and thermoregulate during routine dives. Here we use DTAGs which record heart rate together with foraging and movement behaviour to investigate how O2 management is balanced between the need to dive and forage in five wild harbour porpoises that hunt thousands of small prey daily during continuous shallow diving. Dive heart rate was moderate (median minimum 47-69 bpm) and relatively stable across dive types, dive duration (0.5-3.3 min), and activity. A moderate dive response, allowing for some perfusion of peripheral tissues, may be essential for fuelling the high field metabolic rates required to maintain body temperature and support digestion during diving in these small, continuously-feeding cetaceans. Thus, despite having the capacity to prolong dives via a strong dive response, for these shallow-diving cetaceans, it appears to be more efficient to maintain circulation while diving: extreme heart-rate gymnastics are for deep dives and emergencies, not everyday use.


Data was collected using ECG-DTAGS DTAGs which record heart rate together with acoustic, depth, and movement data.

Data processing was performed using in MATLAB (MathWorks, Inc.). Code used to process data are available at

The acceleration data has been processed to calculate Minimum Specific Acceleration (m s-2) at 25 Hz. This is an activity index. (files ending in MSA).

The heart rate data files identify the time of each heart beat and the associated instantaneous heart rate. Heart beats were identified by marking R peaks in the ECG QRS complex in 250 Hz ECG data. 

The Dive Summary file provides information on each dive analyzed in the paper including time of dive, duration, heart rate metrics, and activity metrics.

The Interval Summary file provided data for each interval analyzed in the paper including time of interval, heart rate metrics and activity metrics.  

Scripts used to process data are available at:

More details are provided in the Readme spreadsheet. 

Usage notes

There is a Readme spreadsheet with general usage notes and a worksheet for each file type with some general information about the files such as variable definitions. 

We request that you please let us know if you plan to use these data.  There are a number of reasons why this would be helpful for you to contact, including:

  1.  Occasionally we discover and correct errors in the data.
  2. The researchers that have collected and processed the data will be able to advise on data collection and processing.
  3.  Other people within the project, may be analysing data from this project. Someone else may already be conducting the analysis that you have in mind and it is desirable to prevent duplication of effort.
  4. We may have additional data that will be of use and would be open to collaboration.

There are 13 files.

1) ReadMe_McDonaldetal_Porpoise2021_ColumnHeader_Def.csv - provides general processing information and column name definitions for all the file types.

2) DiveSummaryStats_Porpoise_2021.csv - Heart rate, activity and dive summary data for all dives analyzed in the paper. All five porpoises combined.

3) IntervalSummaryStats_Porpoise_2021.csv - Summary heart rate and activity data for 5 s intervals during the bottom of the dive. All five porpoises combined.

4-8) Files that end with HR. The instantaneous heart rate data for the 5 porpoises in the study. File name includes porpoise ID.

9-13) Files that end with MSA. A MSA data file for each of the 5 porpoises with minimum specific acceleration data at 25 Hz. File name includes porpoise ID.


German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation awarded to US, JT, MJ, Award: Z1.2‐53302/2010/14

Office of Naval Research awarded to BIM, PTM, MJ, Award: N000141612852

National Science Foundation International Research Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to BIM, Award: OISE – 1159123

Carlsberg Foundation, Award: Awarded to PTM

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship to DMW, Award: 748026