Every April 15th, we see articles and commemorations related to the sinking of the Titanic. On that day, the boat, better known as the unsinkable, proved those who gave it that nickname wrong, as it collided against an iceberg and sank beneath the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic.
More than 1500 lives were lost (31% of the total number of passengers)
Figure 1: Front page of a newspaper with the headlines of the sinking
Although there were some animals on board, few have written about that. What happened to them?
Let’s see what we can find checking the available bibliography:
When the Titanic hit the iceberg, it was carrying 12 dogs, a cat and some birds (a canary and a few hens).
Only first class passengers were allowed to have pets with them. Dogs and cats had to be at the kennel, in cages designed for that end. A sailor had the task to leash the animals and take them on a walk around the deck. Also, the hens were in cages close to the kennel which had been acquired to improve the breed of the layers of the farm of one of the passengers.
All animals had to pay for their right to be travelling. The cost was about half of what it was charged for a passenger (same price as a child). The first class voyage had a cost of 70 to 870 sterling pounds (in current pounds it would be in a range between 2700-78000 pounds today). So, travelling with your pets was pretty costly. Even the canary paid for its trip: 25 cents.
There was also a cat on board, a female called Jenny. Jenny delivered a few days before the sinking. It is quite likely that there were some more cats, as they were used to control rodents, but only Jenny’s presence has been documented.
There were 12 dogs on the boat, 3 managed to survive. They were all small dogs: pomeranian and one pekingese. Of course, they were held in the arms of their owners so they didn’t occupy space on the lifeboats, there was no opposition for them to be saved.
We know more about the surviving dogs:
- A Pomeranian female called “Lady”, who belonged to a traveler from N. York who had bought her in Paris.
- Another pomeranian was luckier than its owner. The dog was the pet of the Rothschild couple. He, Martin Rothschild, a successful entrepreneur from NY was one of the casualties. His wife, Elisabeth, was rescued with the little dog. The crew of the ship that rescued the lifeboat of Elisabeth Rothschild didn’t want to pick the dog, but Mrs. Rothschild determination was stronger and both were saved.
- Last, but not least, a pekingese called Sun Yat Sen who belonged to a rich editorialist (Harper) who later on recalled that he saved his dog because: “nobody objected and there was plenty of space in the lifeboat”.
Figure 2: On the left a pekingeses, on the right a pomeranian. The small size of these breeds allowed their owners to carry them in their arms and be allowed on the lifeboats.
We know that someone freed the dogs and that they ran on the deck before the sinking. They all died from hypothermia. The water was at 34º F and at that temperature people and pets succumb in a few minutes.
What is the process of dying in such circumstances?. Once in the water -heat loss is 25 times quicker in the water than in air both at the same temperature- the physiological processes in humans and dogs is very similar.
Death can happen due to shock: the stress in such situations accelerates the heart rate and breathing. 20% of people die due to cardiac failure in the first 2 minutes in the water.
If the individual doesn’t suffer from shock, then blood circulation is drastically reduced in the skin and limb muscles. Blood stays in the key organs in a desperate try to keep them alive as long as possible. Without their regular circulation arms and legs do not respond and the swimmer -it doesn’t matter how strong- goes down the surface and drowns in 30 minutes.
There is, however, a terrestrial mammals who are capable of swimming long distances in very cold waters. I mean Polar bears.
The Titanic sunk at 400 miles from the coast of Terranova. There is one confirmed case of a female polar bear who was able to swim for 426 miles, during 9 consecutive days. How is it possible?. She lost 22 Kg in her travel but managed to recover afterwards.
The reasons are the following: polar bears have a thick layer of fat below their sking that insulates them from the external temperatures, so their limbs keep a normal bloodstream even in such cold temperatures.
But, more important, and this is unique for polar bears (other bears don’t have this mechanism). They are able to produce more Nitric oxid (NO) in their cells. This means that they can control the amount of NO inside their cells and choose whether they produce energy as ATP (adenosine triphosphate) or whether they release energy as heat. So the bear’s cells store less ATP but produce heat so they are able to swim in really cold waters.
Obviously there were not polar bears on board, but had there been one, it may have managed to swim to land and survive.
Figure 3: Polar bear swimming in freezing cold waters
Titanic Dogs Remembered In Museum Exhibit On Eve Of 100th Anniversary. Huffington post. April 2012
Patrick Kiger. Life on Board: Animals. The Non-Human Passengers Aboard the Titanic. National geographic
Women and PETS first! There was a menagerie of animals aboard the Titanic – but their chances of survival depended entirely on their pedigree. Daily mail. April 2012
Animals onboard RMS Titanic. Oct 24th, 2014
Encyclopedia Titanica. Titanic Facts, History and Biography
Mario Vittone. The Truth About Cold Water. Gcaptain. April 12, 2013.
Casselman, A. Longest Polar Bear Swim Recorded—426 Miles Straight. National Geographic magazine. July 2011
Welch, A. et al. Polar Bears Exhibit Genome-Wide Signatures of Bioenergetic Adaptation to Life in the Arctic Environment. Genome Biol Evol (2014) 6 (2): 433-450. 06 February 2014Andreanna J. Welch1
Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo (SUNY), Buffalo
Present address: School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom
Present address: Institute for Marine Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA