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Diversity of vibrissal follicle anatomy in cetaceans

Mynett, Natasha and Mossman, Hannah L and Huettner, Tim and Grant, Robyn A (2021) Diversity of vibrissal follicle anatomy in cetaceans. The Anatomical Record. ISSN 1932-8486

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Abstract

Most cetaceans are born with vibrissae but they can be lost or reduced in adulthood, especially in odontocetes. Despite this, some species of odontocetes have been found to have functioning vibrissal follicles (including the follicle itself and any remaining vibrissal hair shaft) that play a role in mechanoreception, proprioception and electroreception. This reveals a greater diversity of vibrissal function in odontocetes than in any other mammalian group. However, we know very little about vibrissal follicle form and function across the Cetacea. Here, we qualitatively describe the gross vibrissal follicle anatomy of fetuses of three species of cetaceans, including two odontocetes: Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus), harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), and one mysticete: minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), and compared our findings to previous anatomical descriptions. All three species had few, short vibrissae contained within a relatively simple, single-part follicle, lacking in muscles. However, we observed differences in vibrissal number, follicle size and shape, and innervation distribution between the species. While all three species had nerve fibers around the follicles, the vibrissal follicles of Balaenoptera acutorostrata were innervated by a deep vibrissal nerve, and the nerve fibers of the odontocetes studied were looser and more branched. For example, in Lagenorhynchus acutus, branches of nerve fibers travelled parallel to the follicle, and innervated more superficial areas, rather than just the base. Our anatomical descriptions lend support to the observation that vibrissal morphology is diverse in cetaceans, and is worth further investigation to fully explore links between form and function.

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