Respiratory and olfactory turbinal size in canid and arctoid carnivorans



Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA. E:


Within the nasal cavity of mammals is a complex scaffold of paper-thin bones that function in respiration and olfaction. Known as turbinals, the bones greatly enlarge the surface area available for conditioning inspired air, reducing water loss, and improving olfaction. Given their functional significance, the relative development of turbinal bones might be expected to differ among species with distinct olfactory, thermoregulatory and/or water conservation requirements. Here we explore the surface area of olfactory and respiratory turbinals relative to latitude and diet in terrestrial Caniformia, a group that includes the canid and arctoid carnivorans (mustelids, ursids, procyonids, mephitids, ailurids). Using high-resolution computed tomography x-ray scans, we estimated respiratory and olfactory turbinal surface area and nasal chamber volume from three-dimensional virtual models of skulls. Across the Caniformia, respiratory surface area scaled isometrically with estimates of body size and there was no significant association with climate, as estimated by latitude. Nevertheless, one-on-one comparisons of sister taxa suggest that arctic species may have expanded respiratory turbinals. Olfactory surface area scaled isometrically among arctoids, but showed positive allometry in canids, reflecting the fact that larger canids, all of which are carnivorous, had relatively greater olfactory surface areas. In addition, among the arctoids, large carnivorous species such as the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and wolverine (Gulo gulo) also displayed enlarged olfactory turbinals. More omnivorous caniform species that feed on substantial quantities of non-vertebrate foods had less expansive olfactory turbinals. Because large carnivorous species hunt widely dispersed prey, an expanded olfactory turbinal surface area may improve a carnivore's ability to detect prey over great distances using olfactory cues.