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A whale of a discovery: New sensory organ found in rorqual whales

Date:
May 23, 2012
Source:
University of British Columbia
Summary:
Scientists have discovered a sensory organ in rorqual whales that coordinates its signature lunge-feeding behavior -- and may help explain their enormous size. Rorquals are a subgroup of baleen whales -- including blue, fin, minke and humpback whales. They are characterized by a special, accordion-like blubber layer that goes from the snout to the navel. The blubber expands up to several times its resting length to allow the whales to engulf large quantities of prey-laden water, which is then expelled through the baleen to filter krill and fish. The study details the discovery of an organ at the tip of the whale's chin, lodged in the ligamentous tissue that connects their two jaws.

A new sensory organ, found within the chin of rorqual whales, is responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy. Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ.
Credit: Art by Carl Buell, arranged by Nicholas D. Pyenson / Smithsonian Institution.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the Smithsonian Institution have discovered a sensory organ in rorqual whales that coordinates its signature lunge-feeding behaviour -- and may help explain their enormous size.

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Rorquals are a subgroup of baleen whales -- including blue, fin, minke and humpback whales. They are characterized by a special, accordion-like blubber layer that goes from the snout to the navel. The blubber expands up to several times its resting length to allow the whales to engulf large quantities of prey-laden water, which is then expelled through the baleen to filter krill and fish.

The study, to be featured on the cover of the journal Nature, details the discovery of an organ at the tip of the whale's chin, lodged in the ligamentous tissue that connects their two jaws.

Samples were collected from recently deceased fin and minke whale carcasses captured as part of Icelandic commercial whaling operations. Commercial whaling in Iceland resumed in 2006 and quotas are determined annually by its government.

Scanning of the whale's chin revealed a grape fruit-sized sensory organ, located between the tips of the jaws, and supplied by neurovascular tissue.

The research team was assisted by technicians at FPInnovations, the owner of Canada's only X-ray computed tomography (XRCT) machine large enough to accommodate the massive specimens. Used to scan giant logs, the XRCT machine provides a three dimensional map of the internal structure of whale tissues.

"We think this sensory organ sends information to the brain in order to coordinate the complex mechanism of lunge-feeding, which involves rotating the jaws, inverting the tongue and expanding the throat pleats and blubber layer," says lead author Nick Pyenson, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow at UBC. "It probably helps rorquals feel prey density when initiating a lunge."

A fin whale, the second longest whale on the planet, can engulf as much as 80 cubic metres of water and prey -- equal or greater than the size of the whale itself -- in each gulp in less than six seconds. A previous study by co-author Jeremy Goldbogen showed that a fin whale captures 10 kilograms of krill in each gulp in order to sustain its average 50-ton body mass. Goldbogen, who conducted both studies while a PhD student at UBC, is now a scientist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington.

"In terms of evolution, the innovation of this sensory organ has a fundamental role in one of the most extreme feeding methods of aquatic creatures," says co-author and UBC Zoology Prof. Bob Shadwick.

"Because the physical features required to carry out lunge-feeding evolved before the extremely large body sizes observed in today's rorquals, it's likely that this sensory organ -- and its role in coordinating successful lunging -- is responsible for rorquals claiming the largest-animals-on-earth status," Shadwick adds.

"This also demonstrates how poorly we understand the basic functions of these top predators of the ocean and underlines the importance for biodiversity conservation."

The study was supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Smithsonian Institution. FPInnovations' XRCT machine was a joint project with the University of Northern British Columbia and funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Nicholas D. Pyenson, Jeremy A. Goldbogen, A. Wayne Vogl, Gabor Szathmary, Richard L. Drake, Robert E. Shadwick. Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales. Nature, 2012; 485 (7399): 498 DOI: 10.1038/nature11135

Cite This Page:

University of British Columbia. "A whale of a discovery: New sensory organ found in rorqual whales." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 May 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523133242.htm>.
University of British Columbia. (2012, May 23). A whale of a discovery: New sensory organ found in rorqual whales. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 26, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523133242.htm
University of British Columbia. "A whale of a discovery: New sensory organ found in rorqual whales." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523133242.htm (accessed October 26, 2014).

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Scientists Discover a New Sensory Organ in the Chin of Baleen Whales

May 23, 2012 Lunge feeding in rorqual whales (a group that includes blue, humpback and fin whales) is unique among mammals, but details of how it works have remained elusive. Now, scientists have solved the ... read more

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