Among the Reptilia the morphology of the trigeminal (V) motor nucleus is a rather good indicator of the sophistication of jaw kinetics. As it becomes more complex, the nucleus shifts ventrolaterally and becomes divisible into subnuclear groups. The cottonmouth moccasin, a pit viper with very finely developed jaw musculature and kinetics, has a very large V motor nucleus. It is divisible into three subnuclei: the ventral and intermediate, containing predominantly large neurons (40–60 μm), and the dorsal subnucleus, containing only small neurons (20 μm).
Ultrastructural study has indicated that these subnuclei can also be characterized according to the types of boutons synapsing on the cells. The soma of neurons in the ventral and intermediate subnuclei have up to 50% of their profile covered with clusters of boutons. The neurons of the dorsal subnucleus usually have only one cluster of two to three boutons per profile. Both cell types have more boutons containing spherical vesicles in axo-dendritic synapses than those containing flattened vesicles, and approximately equal numbers of these boutons in axosomatic contacts. However, the small cells have proportionately more boutons containing spherical vesicles synapsing on them.
Boutons similar to those described in mammalian spinal cord were identified in the snake V motor nucleus. Small terminals containing spherical (S) or flattened (F) vesicles and terminals associated with postsynaptic cisternae (C) or with dense bodies (T) are commonly found in the ventral and intermediate subnuclei. C- and T-boutons are rare in the dorsal subnucleus. Large terminals with multiple active sites and postsynaptic dense bodies (M) and their associated, small, preterminal boutons (P) were not observed in the snake V motor nucleus. Boutons containing only large granular vesicles (G) were also not observed.
We suggest that the ventral and intermediate subnuclei consist of α- and possibly β-motoneurons and the dorsal subnucleus contains γ-motoneurons. This anatomical segregation of function may be important to the physiology of ophidian mastication, which is quite different from that of mammals. However, there do exist several morphological similarities to mammals, suggesting that the snake brainstem may be a good model for comparative structure–function correlations.