Biology » The Respiratory System » Systems of Gas Exchange

Skin and Gills

Skin and Gills

Earthworms and amphibians use their skin (integument) as a respiratory organ. A dense network of capillaries lies just below the skin and facilitates gas exchange between the external environment and the circulatory system. The respiratory surface must be kept moist in order for the gases to dissolve and diffuse across cell membranes.

Organisms that live in water need to obtain oxygen from the water. Oxygen dissolves in water but at a lower concentration than in the atmosphere. The atmosphere has roughly 21 percent oxygen. In water, the oxygen concentration is much smaller than that. Fish and many other aquatic organisms have evolved gills to take up the dissolved oxygen from water (see the figure below).

Gills are thin tissue filaments that are highly branched and folded. When water passes over the gills, the dissolved oxygen in water rapidly diffuses across the gills into the bloodstream. The circulatory system can then carry the oxygenated blood to the other parts of the body. In animals that contain coelomic fluid instead of blood, oxygen diffuses across the gill surfaces into the coelomic fluid. Gills are found in mollusks, annelids, and crustaceans.

The photo shows a carp with a wedge of skin at the back of the head cut away, revealing pink gills.

This common carp, like many other aquatic organisms, has gills that allow it to obtain oxygen from water. (credit: “Guitardude012″/Wikimedia Commons)

The folded surfaces of the gills provide a large surface area to ensure that the fish gets sufficient oxygen. Diffusion is a process in which material travels from regions of high concentration to low concentration until equilibrium is reached. In this case, blood with a low concentration of oxygen molecules circulates through the gills. The concentration of oxygen molecules in water is higher than the concentration of oxygen molecules in gills. As a result, oxygen molecules diffuse from water (high concentration) to blood (low concentration), as shown in the figure below. Similarly, carbon dioxide molecules in the blood diffuse from the blood (high concentration) to water (low concentration).

The illustration shows a fish, with a box indicating the location of the gills, behind the head. A close-up image shows the gills, each of which resembles a feathery worm. Two stacks of gills attach to a structure called a columnar gill arch, forming a tall V. Water travels in from the outside of the V, between each gill, then travels out of the top of the V. Veins travel into the gill from the base of the gill arch, and arteries travel back out on the opposite side. A close-up image of a single gill shows that water travels over the gill, passing over deoxygenated veins first, then over oxygenated arteries.

As water flows over the gills, oxygen is transferred to blood via the veins. (credit “fish”: modification of work by Duane Raver, NOAA)

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