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Morphology of the odontocete melon and its implications for acoustic function

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Abstract

Toothed whales (crown Odontoceti) are unique among mammals in their ability to echolocate underwater, using specialized tissue structures. The melon, a structure composed of fat and connective tissue, is an important component in the production of an echolocation beam; it is known to focus high frequency, short duration echolocation clicks. Here, we report on the morphology of the odontocete melon to provide a comprehensive understanding of melon structure across odontocete taxa. This study examined nine odontocete species (12 individual specimens), from five of the ten extant odontocete families. We established standardized definitions using computed tomography scans of the melon to investigate structure without losing geometric integrity. The morphological features that relate to the focusing capacity of the melon include internal density topography, melon size and shape, and relationship to other forehead structures. The potential for melon structure to act as a filter is discussed: establishing a lower limit to the frequency of sounds that can be propagated through the head. Collectively, the results of this study provide a robust, quantitative and comparative framework for evaluating tissue structures that form a key component of the echolocation apparatus.

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