Position of the larynx in odontoceti (toothed whales)

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Abstract

This study examines the positional relationships of the odontocete (toothed whale) larynx to further an understanding of their breathing, swallowing, and vocalizing abilities. Seventeen specimens representing nine cetacean genera (Delphinus, Stenella, Tursiops, Grampus, Delphinapterus, Globicephala, Kogia, Mesoplodon, and Phocoena) were studied post mortem. Nine specimens were sectioned in the midsagittal plane and the position of the larynx relative to vertebral levels, skull base, and palatal structures was recorded. In eight specimens that could not be bisected for reasons of large size or condition of preservation, the larynx was removed by a ventral approach for further dissection. The results show that the upper respiratory tract of the odontocetes has evolved away from a basic mammalian pattern. Laryngeal position among terrestrial mammals usually corresponds to the level of cervical vertebrae 1–3. The odontocete larynx, however, lies rostral to the level of the atlas and extends to the presphenoidal synchondrosis. Its extension above the level of the foramen magnum is due to three factors: (1) The larynx is elongated into a tubular extension that projects beyond the soft palate into the nasopharynx; (2) the neck region is shortened owing to the highly compressed cervical vertebrae; and (3) the skull base is oriented in the same direction as the cervical vertebrae because of the horizontal and fusiform alignment of the head and thorax. Whereas the larynx of most terrestrial mammals is separable from the nasopharynx, that of the odontocetes studied may be permanently intranarial, held in place by the palatopharyngeal sphincter. Laryngeal position may affect their vocal abilities, allowing odontocetes to simultaneously swallow and echolocate.

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