Microvascular patterns in the blubber of shallow and deep diving odontocetes

J Morphol. 2012 Aug;273(8):932-42. doi: 10.1002/jmor.20032. Epub 2012 May 17.


Blubber, a specialized form of subdermal adipose tissue, surrounds marine mammal bodies. Typically, adipose tissue is perfused by capillaries but information on blubber vascularization is lacking. This study's goals were to: 1) describe and compare the microvasculature (capillaries, microarterioles, and microvenules) of blubber across odontocete species; 2) compare microvasculature of blubber to adipose tissue; and 3) examine relationships between blubber's lipid composition and its microvasculature. Percent microvascularity, distribution, branching pattern, and diameter of microvessels were determined from images of histochemically stained blubber sections from shallow-diving bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), deeper-diving pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps), deep-diving beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris; Ziphius cavirostris), and the subdermal adipose tissue of domestic pigs (Sus scrofa). Tursiops blubber showed significant stratification in percent microvascularity among the superficial, middle, and deep layers and had a significantly higher percent microvascularity than all other animals analyzed, in which the microvasculature was more uniformly distributed. The percent microvasculature of Kogia blubber was lower than that of Tursiops but higher than that of beaked whales and the subdermal adipose tissue of domestic pigs. Tursiops had the most microvascular branching. Microvessel diameter was relatively uniform in all species. There were no clear patterns associating microvascular and lipid characteristics. The microvascular characteristics of the superficial layer of blubber resembled the adipose tissue of terrestrial mammals, suggesting some conservation of microvascular patterns in mammalian adipose tissue. The middle and deep layers of blubber, particularly in Tursiops, showed the greatest departure from typical mammalian microvascular arrangement. Factors such as metabolics or thermoregulation may be influencing the microvasculature in these layers.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / blood supply*
  • Adipose Tissue / physiology
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology
  • Bottle-Nosed Dolphin / anatomy & histology*
  • Bottle-Nosed Dolphin / physiology
  • Diving / physiology
  • Dolphins / metabolism
  • Dolphins / physiology
  • Microvessels / anatomy & histology*
  • Microvessels / physiology
  • Swine / anatomy & histology
  • Whales / anatomy & histology*
  • Whales / physiology