Functional morphology and homology in the odontocete nasal complex: implications for sound generation

J Morphol. 1996 Jun;228(3):223-85. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-4687(199606)228:3<223::AID-JMOR1>3.0.CO;2-3.


The site and physiologic mechanism(s) responsible for the generation of odontocete biosonar signals have eluded investigators for decades. To address these issues we subjected postmortem toothed whale heads to interrogation using medical imaging techniques. Most of the 40 specimens (from 19 species) were examined using x-ray computed tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MR). Interpretation of scan images was aided by subsequent dissection of the specimens or, in one case, by cryosectioning. In all specimens we described a similar tissue complex and identified it as the hypothetical biosonar signal generator. This complex includes a small pair of fatty bursae embedded in a pair of connective tissue lips, a cartilaginous blade, a stout ligament, and an array of soft tissue air sacs. Comparing and contrasting the morphologic patterns of nasal structures across species representing every extant odontocete superfamily reveals probable homologous relationships, which suggests that all toothed whales may be making their biosonar signals by a similar mechanism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bursa, Synovial / anatomy & histology
  • Cartilage / anatomy & histology
  • Cetacea / anatomy & histology*
  • Connective Tissue / anatomy & histology
  • Dolphins / anatomy & histology
  • Forehead / anatomy & histology*
  • Forehead / diagnostic imaging
  • Forehead / physiology
  • Ligaments / anatomy & histology
  • Membranes / anatomy & histology
  • Nose / anatomy & histology*
  • Nose / diagnostic imaging
  • Nose / physiology
  • Skull / anatomy & histology
  • Sound
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Whales / anatomy & histology