Evolution of the Human Heart’s Four Chambers

Diagram of the human heart

 

jack0m / Getty Images

The human heart is a large muscular organ with four chambers, a septum, several valves, and other various parts necessary for pumping blood all around the human body. But this most vital of all organs is a product of evolution and has spent millions of years perfecting itself to keep humans alive. Scientists look at other animals to observe how they believe the human heart evolved to its current state.

Invertebrate Hearts

Invertebrate animals have very simple circulatory systems that were precursors to the human heart. Many do not have a heart or blood because they are not complex enough to need a way to get nutrients to their body cells. Their cells can just absorb nutrients through their skin or from other cells.

As the invertebrates become a little more complex, they use an open circulatory system. This type of circulatory system does not have any blood vessels or has very few. The blood is pumped throughout the tissues and filters back to the pumping mechanism.

Like in earthworms, this type of circulatory system does not use an actual heart. It has one or more small muscular areas capable of contracting and pushing the blood and then reabsorbing it as it filters back.

There are several types of invertebrates, which share the common trait of lacking a spine or backbone:

  • Annelids: earthworms, leeches, polychaetes
  • Arthropods: insects, lobsters, spiders
  • Echinoderms: sea urchins, starfish
  • Mollusks: clams, octopi, snails
  • Protozoans: single-celled organisms (amoebas and paramecia)

Fish Hearts

Of the vertebrates, or animals with a backbone, fish have the simplest type of heart and is considered the next step in the evolutionary chain. While it is a closed circulatory system, it has only two chambers. The top is called the atrium and the bottom chamber is called the ventricle. It has only one large vessel that feeds the blood into the gills to get oxygen and then transports it around the fish's body.

Frog Hearts

It is thought that while fish only lived in the oceans, amphibians like the frog were the link between water-dwelling animals and the newer land animals that evolved. Logically, it follows that frogs would, therefore, have a more complex heart than fish since they are higher on the evolutionary chain.

In fact, frogs have a three-chambered heart. Frogs evolved to have two atria instead of one, but still only have one ventricle. The separation of the atria allows frogs to keep the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood separate as they come into the heart. The single ventricle is very large and very muscular so it can pump the oxygenated blood throughout the various blood vessels in the body.

Turtle Hearts

The next step up on the evolutionary ladder is the reptiles. Some reptiles, like turtles, actually have a heart that has a sort of a three-and-a-half chambered heart. There is a small septum that goes about halfway down the ventricle. The blood is still able to mix in the ventricle, but the timing of the pumping of the ventricle minimizes that mixing of the blood.

Bird Hearts

Bird hearts, like human hearts, also keep two streams of blood permanently separated. However, scientists believe that the hearts of archosaurs, which are crocodilians and birds, evolved separately. In the case as crocodilians, a small opening in the base of the arterial trunk allows some mixing to occur when they are diving underwater.

Human Hearts

The human heart, along with the rest of the mammals, is the most complex, having four chambers.

The human heart has a fully formed septum that separates both the atria and the ventricles. The atria sit on top of the ventricles. The right atrium receives deoxygenated blood coming back from various parts of the body. That blood is then let into the right ventricle which pumps the blood to the lungs through the pulmonary artery.

The blood gets oxygenated and then returns to the left atrium through the pulmonary veins. The oxygenated blood then goes into the left ventricle and is pumped out to the body through the largest artery in the body, the aorta.

This complex but efficient way of getting oxygen and nutrients to body tissues took billions of years to evolve and perfect.