Odontocete suction feeding: Experimental analysis of water flow and head shape



The role of cranial morphology in the generation of intraoral and oropharyngeal suction pressures in odontocetes was investigated by manipulating the jaw and hyolingual apparatus of submerged heads of three species presenting varied shapes. Hyoid and gular muscles were manually employed to depress and retract the tongue. Pressures were recorded at three locations in the oral cavity, as gape and site, speed, and force of pull were varied. A biomechanical model was also developed to evaluate pressure data. The species with the shortest, bluntest head and smallest mouth opening generated greater negative pressures. Suction generation diminished sharply as gape increased. Greatest negative pressures attained were around −45 mmHg (−6,000 Pa), a magnitude deemed suitable for capture of small live prey. Odontocetes utilizing this bidirectional flow system should profit by evolution of a rounder mouth opening through progressive shortening and widening of the rostrum and jaws, a trend evident in cranial measurements from fossil and recent odontocetes. Blunt heads correlate with anatomical, ecological, and behavioral traits associated with suction feeding. Small-gape suction (with minimally opened jaws) could be used by odontocetes of all head and oral shapes to draw prey sufficiently close to the mouth for suction ingestion or grasping via dentition. Principal limitations of the experimental and mathematical simulations include assumption of a stationary odontocete with static (open or closed) jaws and potential scaling issues with differently sized heads and gapes. J. Morphol., 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.