Aquatic adaptations in the nose of carnivorans: evidence from the turbinates


Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA. T: +1 310 7949398;


Inside the mammalian nose lies a labyrinth of bony plates covered in epithelium collectively known as turbinates. Respiratory turbinates lie anteriorly and aid in heat and water conservation, while more posterior olfactory turbinates function in olfaction. Previous observations on a few carnivorans revealed that aquatic species have relatively large, complex respiratory turbinates and greatly reduced olfactory turbinates compared with terrestrial species. Body heat is lost more quickly in water than air and increased respiratory surface area likely evolved to minimize heat loss. At the same time, olfactory surface area probably diminished due to a decreased reliance on olfaction when foraging under water. To explore how widespread these adaptations are, we documented scaling of respiratory and olfactory turbinate surface area with body size in a variety of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine carnivorans, including pinnipeds, mustelids, ursids, and procyonids. Surface areas were estimated from high-resolution CT scans of dry skulls, a novel approach that enabled a greater sampling of taxa than is practical with fresh heads. Total turbinate, respiratory, and olfactory surface areas correlate well with body size (r2 ≥ 0.7), and are relatively smaller in larger species. Relative to body mass or skull length, aquatic species have significantly less olfactory surface area than terrestrial species. Furthermore, the ratio of olfactory to respiratory surface area is associated with habitat. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, we found strong support for convergence on 1 : 3 proportions in aquatic taxa and near the inverse in terrestrial taxa, indicating that aquatic mustelids and pinnipeds independently acquired similar proportions of olfactory to respiratory turbinates. Constraints on turbinate surface area in the nasal chamber may result in a trade-off between respiratory and olfactory function in aquatic mammals.