Aquatic adaptation and the evolution of smell and taste in whales

Zoological Lett. 2015 Feb 13;1:9. doi: 10.1186/s40851-014-0002-z. eCollection 2015.


Introduction: While olfaction is one of the most important senses in most terrestrial mammals, it is absent in modern toothed whales (Odontoceti, Cetacea). Furthermore, behavioral evidence suggests that gustation is very limited. In contrast, their aquatic sistergroup, baleen whales (Mysticeti) retain small but functional olfactory organs, and nothing is known about their gustation. It is difficult to investigate mysticete chemosensory abilities because experiments in a controlled setting are impossible.

Results: Here, we use the functional regionalization of the olfactory bulb (OB) to identify the loss of specific olfactory functions in mysticetes. We provide the whole-genome sequence of a mysticete and show that mysticetes lack the dorsal domain of the OB, an area known to induce innate avoidance behavior against odors of predators and spoiled foods. Genomic and fossil data suggest that mysticetes lost the dorsal domain of the OB before the Odontoceti-Mysticeti split. Furthermore, we found that all modern cetaceans are revealed to have lost the functional taste receptors.

Conclusion: These results strongly indicate that profound changes in the chemosensory capabilities had occurred in the cetacean lineage during the period when ancestral whales migrated from land to water.

Keywords: Antarctic minke whale genome; Archaeoceti; Cetacea; Chemoreception; Olfactory bulb.