Reappraisal of the vomeronasal system of catarrhine primates: Ontogeny, morphology, functionality, and persisting questions



The vomeronasal organ (VNO) is a chemosensory organ that functions in sociosexual communication in many vertebrates. In strepsirhine primates and New World monkeys, the bilateral VNOs are traditionally understood to exist as a well-developed chemosensory epithelial unit. In contrast, the VNOs of catarrhine primates are thought to be absent or exist only as reduced epithelial tubes of uncertain function. However, the VNO of New World monkeys shows substantial variation in the extent of sensory epithelium. Recent findings that the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) possesses a VNO similar to humans suggest the variability of the VNO among haplorhine primates may be more extensive than previously thought, and perhaps more at par with that observed in chiropterans. The atypical histologic structure and location of the human/chimpanzee VNO suggest accessory glandular secretion and transport functions. Other catarrhine primates (e.g., Macaca spp.), may truly be characterized by VNO absence. Unique aspects of facial growth and development in catarrhine primates may influence the position or even presence of the VNO in adults. These recent findings demonstrate that previous investigations on some catarrhine primates may have missed the VNO and underestimated the extent of variability. As an understanding of this variation increases, our view of VNO functionality and associated terminology is changing. Further investigations are needed to consider phylogenetic implications of VNO variability and the association of craniofacial form and VNO anatomic position in primates. Anat Rec (New Anat) 265:176–192, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.