The marsupial and monotreme thymus, revisited



The anatomy and histology of the thymus in monotremes and marsupials were revisited and several new observations made. Tissues of the mediastinum and/or ventral neck of 134 animals altogether (12 Australian marsupial and monotreme species) were examined and the locations of thymic tissues documented. Descriptions not previously recorded include the gross anatomy of the thymus in monotremes, the bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus, Isoodon obesulus), the wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), and koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), as well as light and electron microscopic features in all species examined. In monotremes, thymic tissue was diffusely spread in the mediastinum and extended over the ventral surface of the pericardium. In the bandicoot, a small, deep cervical thymus was persistently present as well as the expected thoracic thymus and contrary to previous observations, a thoracic thymus was found in the wombat but not the koala. Both species also have a cervical thymus. In the marsupial species examined, additional thymic tissue was often present in the vicinity of the carotid bifurcations, in the deep ventral regions of the neck. In many animals, thymic tissue of deep cervical origin as well as thoracic thymus was mingled with parathyroid tissue. In several specimens, the two tissue types lacked intervening connective tissue barriers and at the electron microscopic level, attenuated processes of epithelial reticular cells were the only tissue components separating parathyroid and thymic tissues. The role of the cervical thymus in diprotodont marsupials remains to be elucidated. The presence of aberrant thymic tissue in marsupials is important in the interpretation of experiments involving thymectomy and immunological development because complete removal of thymic tissue may not occur. One aspect that has received little attention is the function of the thymic epithelial reticular cells in marsupial development and a suggestion is made that perhaps the extra thymic tissue found in marsupials provides extra epithelial reticular cells necessary for the production of cytokines and other secretions to sustain the development of immunological competence.