Morphological variation of the relictual alveolar structures in the mandibles of baleen whales

PeerJ. 2021 Jul 30:9:e11890. doi: 10.7717/peerj.11890. eCollection 2021.


Living baleen whales (mysticetes) are bulk filter feeders that use keratinous baleen plates to filter food from prey laden water. Extant mysticetes are born entirely edentulous, though they possess tooth buds early in ontogeny, a trait inherited from toothed ancestors. The mandibles of extant baleen whales have neither teeth nor baleen; teeth are resorbed in utero and baleen grows only on the palate. The mandibles of extant baleen whales also preserve a series of foramina and associated sulci that collectively form an elongated trough, called the alveolar groove. Despite this name, it remains unclear if the alveolar groove of edentulous mysticetes and the dental structures of toothed mammals are homologous. Here, we describe and quantify the anatomical diversity of these structures across extant mysticetes and compare their variable morphologies across living taxonomic groups (i.e., Balaenidae, Neobalaenidae, Eschrichtiidae, and Balaenopteridae). Although we found broad variability across taxonomic groups for the alveolar groove length, occupying approximately 60-80 percent of the mandible's total curvilinear length (CLL) across all taxa, the relictual alveolar foramen showed distinct patterns, ranging between 15-25% CLL in balaenids, while ranging between 3-12% CLL in balaenopterids. This variability and the morphological patterning along the body of the mandible is consistent with the hypothesis that the foramina underlying the alveolar groove reflect relictual alveoli. These findings also lay the groundwork for future histological studies to examine the contents of these foramina and clarify their potential role in the feeding process.

Keywords: Cetacea; Dentition; Filter feeding; Mandibles; Variation.

Grants and funding

Carlos M. Peredo and Nicholas D. Pyenson were supported by the Remington Kellogg Fund and the Basis Foundation. Carlos M. Peredo was further supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Award #1906181) and the Michigan Society of Fellows. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.