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Keywords:

  • humpback;
  • whale;
  • bubble;
  • cloud;
  • net;
  • larynx;
  • anatomy;
  • feeding;
  • mysticete;
  • cetacean;
  • air release;
  • respiratory

Abstract

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have developed extensive protective barriers to exclude water or food from the respiratory tract, including valvular nostrils, an intranarial elongated larynx, and a sphincteric soft palate. A barrier breach can be lethal, as asphyxiation may occur from incursions of water (drowning) or food (choking). Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), however, exhibit a possibly unique and paradoxical behavior concerning respiratory protection: they release a “bubble cloud” (a cluster of tiny bubbles) underwater from the mouth. How they do this remains unclear. This study tests the hypothesis that the larynx plays a role in enabling bubble cloud emission. The anatomy and position of the larynx was examined in seven specimens of Megaptera novaeangliae. Results indicate that the epiglottis can be manually removed from behind the soft palate and placed in the oral cavity during dissection. Unlike that of toothed whales (odontocetes), the humpback whale larynx does not appear to be permanently intranarial. The elongated and trough-shaped epiglottis may function as a tube when placed against the undersurface of the soft palate and, thus, facilitate channeling air from the larynx to the oral cavity. The pointed tip and lateral edges of the epiglottis fit tightly against the undersurface of the soft palate, perhaps functioning as a one-way valve that lets air out but prevents water from entering. Bubble cloud generation likely involves air passing directly from the larynx into the oral cavity, and then expulsion through the mesh of the baleen plates. A laryngeal–oral connection, however, compromises the anatomical aquatic adaptations that normally protect the respiratory tract. A potential for drowning exists during the critical interval in which the larynx is intraoral and during re-insertion back to the normal intranarial position. The retention of this risky behavior indicates the importance of bubble clouds in predator avoidance, prey capture, and/or social signaling. Anat Rec, 290:569–580, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.