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Keywords:

  • integument;
  • epidermis;
  • callosities;
  • papillomatosis;
  • moult;
  • southern right whales;
  • balaenid

Abstract

Skin (integument) anatomy reflects adaptations to particular environments. It is hypothesized that cetacean (whale) integument will show unique anatomical adaptations to an aquatic environment, particularly regarding differences in temperature, density, and pressure. In this study, the gross and histological structure of the southern right whale integument is described and compared with terrestrial mammals and previous descriptions of mysticete (baleen whale) and odontocete (toothed whale) species. Samples were taken of the integument of 98 free-swimming southern right whales, Eubalaena australis, and examined by both light and electron microscopy. Results show that three epidermal layers are present, with the stratum corneum being parakeratotic in nature. As in bowhead whales, southern right whales possess an acanthotic epidermis and a notably thick hypodermis, with epidermal rods and extensive papillomatosis. However, unlike bowhead whales, southern right whales possess an uninterrupted hypodermal layer. Surprisingly, the integument of balaenids (right and bowhead mysticetes) in general is more like that of odontocetes than that of the more closely related balaenopterids (rorqual mysticetes). Similarities to odontocetes were found specifically in the collagen fibers in a fat-free zone of the reticular dermal layer and the elastic fibers in the dermal and hypodermal layers. Callosities, a distinctive feature of this genus, have a slightly thicker stratum corneum and are usually associated with hairs that have innervated and vascularized follicles. These hairs may function as vibrissae, thus aiding in aquatic foraging by allowing rapid detection of changes in prey density. Although the thick insulatory integument makes right whales bulky and slow-moving, it is an adaptation for living in cold water. Epidermal thickness, presence of epidermal rods, and callosities may act as barriers against mechanical injury from bodily contact with conspecifics or hard surfaces in the environment (e.g., rocks, ice). Anat Rec, 290:596–613, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.