Development of the cetacean nasal skull.

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The adaptation of cetaceans to aquatic life habits is reflected, in their nasal region, in three marked changes from the original relations found in land mammals. These changes include (1) the loss of the sense of smell, (2) translocation of the nostrils from the tip of the rostrum to the vertex of the head, and (3) elongation of the anterior head to form a rostrum protruding far towards anterior. The morphogenetic processes taking place during embryogenesis of the nasal skull play a decisive part in the development of all these changes. The lateral parts of the embryonic nasal capsule, encompassing the nasal passages, change their position from horizontal to vertical. At the same time, the structures of the original nasal floor (the solum nasi) are shifted in front of the nasal passages towards the rostrum. The structures of the original nasal roof (the tectum nasi) and of the nasal side wall (the paries nasi) are translocated behind the nasal passages towards the neurocranium. The medial nasal septum (the septum nasi) mostly loses its connection to the nasal passages and is produced into a point protruding far towards anterior. The transformed embryonic nasal skull of the Cetacea can be divided into three sections: 1. The median structures. These include the cartilaginous structures, viz., the rostrum nasi, the septum interorbitale and the spina mesethmoidalis, which are accompanied by the dermal bones, the vomer and the praemaxillare. In adult cetaceans the rostrum nasi is mostly preserved as a robust cartilage of the skull, which may possibly serve as a sound transmitting structure of the sonar system, or it may be responsible for the sensing of water streams and vibrations. 2. The posterior side wall structures. These include the following cartilaginous structures that are mostly heavily reduced or mutually fused: the cupula nasi anterior, the tectum nasi, the lamina cribrosa, the paries nasi, the commissura orbitonasalis, the cupula nasi posterior, the processus paraseptalis posterior, the crista semicircularis, the frontoturbinale, the ethmoturbinale I and the maxilloturbinale. The cartilaginous structures are largely accompanied by the dermal bone, the maxillare. Of these embryonic elements, very little is preserved in adult cetaceans. The cartilages of the cupula nasi anterior form the variable skeleton around the nostrils. In Physeter the tectum nasi forms a very long cartilaginous bar that passes through the whole giant anterior head of the sperm whale as a structure accompanying the left nasal passage. 3. The anterior side wall structures. These include the cartilaginous structures, viz., the cartilago ductus nasopalatini, the cartilago paraseptalis, the processus lateralis ventralis and the lamina transversalis anterior, accompanied by the dermal bones, the praemaxillare and the vomer. These structures participate in the formation of the robust rostrum of the cetacean skull, and they are partly preserved even in adults in the form of the isolated ossa pararostralia (the Meckelian ossicles). The comparison of morphogeny of the nasal skull has also made it possible to draw certain conclusions on the phylogeny and systematics of Cetacea. Already the earliest embryonic stages permit us to discern weighty transformations of the original nasal skull of land mammals. These transformations are common to all embryos examined. This fact indicates a common origin of all Cetacea, which thus form a single monophyletic order. However, later embryonic stages show some different modifications of the nasal capsule according to which at least three major groups can be distinguished within the order Cetacea, probably ranking as superfamilies: Balaenopteroidea, Physeteroidea and Delphinoidea. Our observations, being in full accordance with other morphological, and embryological, as well as molecular biological results, suggest that the division of the order Cetacea into two suborders, Mysticeti and Odontoceti, is no longer tenable.




Klima, M. (1999). Development of the cetacean nasal skull. Advances in Anatomy, Embryology, and Cell Biology, 149, 1–143.

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