Rete mirabile of a sheep
A rete mirabile (Latin for "wonderful net"; plural retia mirabilia) is a complex of arteries and veins lying very close to each other, found in some vertebrates. The rete mirabile utilizes countercurrent blood flow within the net (blood flowing in opposite directions) to act as a countercurrent exchanger. It exchanges heat, ions, or gases between vessel walls so that the two bloodstreams within the rete maintain a gradient with respect to temperature, or concentration of gases or solutes. This term was coined by Galen.
The effectiveness of retia is primarily determined by how readily the heat, ions, or gases can be exchanged. And, for a given length they are most effective with respect to gases or heat, then small ions, and decreasingly so with respect to other substances.
In birds with webbed feet, retia mirabilia in the legs and feet transfer heat from the outgoing (hot) blood in the arteries to the incoming (cold) blood in the veins. The effect of this biological heat exchanger is that the internal temperature of the feet is much closer to the ambient temperature, thus reducing heat loss. Penguins have them also in the flippers and nasal passages.
In some fish, a rete mirabile fills the swim bladder with oxygen, increasing the fish's buoyancy. A countercurrent exchange system is utilized between the venous and arterial capillaries. By lowering the pH levels in the venous capillaries, oxygen unbinds from blood hemoglobin. This causes an increase in venous blood oxygen concentration, allowing the oxygen to diffuse through the capillary membrane and into the arterial capillaries, where oxygen is still sequestered to hemoglobin. The cycle of diffusion continues until the concentration of oxygen in the arterial capillaries is supersaturated (larger than the concentration of oxygen in the swim bladder). At this point, the free oxygen in the arterial capillaries diffuses into the swim bladder via the gas gland.
The rete mirabile allows for an increase in muscle temperature in regions where this network of vein and arteries is found. The fish is able to thermoregulate certain areas of their body. Additionally, this increase in temperature leads to an increase in basal metabolic temperature. The fish is now able to split ATP at a higher rate and ultimately can swim faster.
In mammals, an elegant rete mirabile in the efferent arterioles of juxtamedullary glomeruli is important in maintaining the hypertonicity of the renal medulla. It is the hypertonicity of this zone, resorbing water osmotically from the renal collecting ducts as they exit the kidney, that makes possible the excretion of a hypertonic urine and maximum conservation of body water.
Vascular retia mirabilia are also found in the limbs of a range of mammals. These reduce the temperature in the extremities. Some of these probably function to prevent heat loss in cold conditions by reducing the temperature gradient between the limb and the environment. Others reduce the temperature of the testes increasing their productivity. In the neck of the dog, a rete mirabile protects the brain when the body overheats during hunting; the venous blood is cooled down by panting before entering the net.
Retia mirabilia also occur frequently in mammals that burrow, dive or have arboreal lifestyles that involve clinging with the limbs for lengthy periods. In these cases, the rete mirabile may lower limb temperature and therefore the metabolic requirement for oxygen and nutrients in the tissues of the limb. This would be desirable when the blood supply to the limb is limited as a result of a "diving reflex" diverting blood away from the limbs during diving or burrowing or because of postural restrictions on blood supply in the case of clinging, arboreal animals. In the last case, slow-moving arboreal mammals such as sloths, lorises and arboreal anteaters possess retia of the highly developed type known as vascular bundles. The structure and function of these mammalian retia mirabilia are reviewed by O'Dea (1990).
In giraffes, a rete mirabile in the neck equalizes blood pressure when the animal bends down to drink.
The ancient physician Galen mistakenly thought that humans also have a rete mirabile in the neck, apparently based on dissection of sheep and misidentifying the results with the human carotid sinus, and ascribed important properties to it; it fell to Berengario da Carpi first, and then to Vesalius to demonstrate the error.
- [Mark Grant, 2000, Galen on Food and Diet, Routledge]
- "Rete Mirabile". Retrieved 6 September 2012.
- Kardong, K. (2008). Vertebrates: Comparative anatomy, function, evolution,(5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- O'Dea, JD (1990) Mini Review: The Mammalian Rete Mirabile and Oxygen Availability. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 95A (1): 23-25.