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Keywords:

  • retinal topography;
  • stereology;
  • artiodactyl;
  • evolutionary history

Abstract

The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is a browser that uses its extensible tongue to selectively collect leaves during foraging. As the tallest extant terrestrial mammal, its elevated head height provides panoramic surveillance of the environment. These aspects of the giraffe's ecology and phenotype suggest that vision is of prime importance. Using Nissl-stained retinal wholemounts and stereological methods, we quantitatively assessed the retinal specializations in the ganglion cell layer of the giraffe. The mean total number of retinal ganglion cells was 1,393,779 and their topographic distribution revealed the presence of a horizontal visual streak and a temporal area. With a mean peak of 14,271 cells/mm2, upper limits of spatial resolving power in the temporal area ranged from 25 to 27 cycles/degree. We also observed a dorsotemporal extension (anakatabatic area) that tapers toward the nasal retina giving rise to a complete dorsal arch. Using neurofilament-200 immunohistochemistry, we also detected a dorsal arch formed by alpha ganglion cells with density peaks in the temporal (14–15 cells/mm2) and dorsonasal (10 cells/mm2) regions. As with other artiodactyls, the giraffe shares the presence of a horizontal streak and a temporal area which, respectively, improve resolution along the horizon and in the frontal visual field. The dorsal arch is related to the giraffe's head height and affords enhanced resolution in the inferior visual field. The alpha ganglion cell distribution pattern is unique to the giraffe and enhances acquisition of motion information for the control of tongue movement during foraging and the detection of predators. J. Comp. Neurol. 521:2042–2057, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.