Ontogenesis of the sperm whale brain

Authors

  • Helmut H.A. Oelschläger,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anatomy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, 60590 Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany
    • Department of Anatomy (Dr. Senckenbergische Anatomie) der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Theodor-Stern-Kai 7, 60590 Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany
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  • Birgit Kemp

    1. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, 52074 Aachen, Federal Republic of Germany
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Abstract

The development of the sperm whale brain (Physeter macrocephalus) was investigated in 12 embryos and early fetuses to obtain a better understanding of the morphological and physiological adaptations in this most exotic cetacean concerning locomotion, deep diving, and orientation. In male adult sperm whales, the average absolute brain mass and the relative size of the telencephalic hemisphere are the largest within the mammalia, whereas the ratio of the brain mass to the total body mass is one of the smallest.

In the early sperm whale fetus, the rostral part of the olfactory system (olfactory nerves and bulbs) is lost, whereas the nervus terminalis seems to persist. Several components of the limbic system show signs of regression (hippocampus, fornix, mamillary body). In contrast, some components of the auditory system (trapezoid body, inferior colliculus) show marked enlargement in the early fetal period, thereby reflecting their dominant position in the adult. The cerebellum and pons grow slower than in most smaller toothed whales. The pyramidal tract develops poorly (reduction of the limbs), whereas marked growth of the striatum and inferior olive may be related to the animal's locomotion via trunk and tail.

In the early fetal period, the trigeminal, vestibulocochlear, and facial nerves are the dominant cranial nerves (besides the vagus nerve). Whereas the number of axons in the vestibulocochlear nerve is high in adult, toothed whales and their diameters are considerable, the trigeminal nerve of the sperm whale may be the thickest of all cranial nerves and has the largest number of axons (innervation of the huge forehead region). A similar situation seems to exist for the facial nerve: It innervates the blowhole musculature that surrounds the very large spermaceti organ and melon (generation and emission of sonar clicks). J. Comp. Neurol. 399:210–228, 1998. © 1998 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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