Comparative anatomy of the ophthalmic rete and its relationship to ocular blood flow in three species of marine mammal




To examine the blood supply to the eyes of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), spotted seal (Phoca largha), and California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Emphasis is placed on exploring the anatomic function in the context of aquatic life.


Methyl methacrylate casts were prepared and studied using a scanning electron microscope. Infrared images of the eye were recorded using a thermocamera.


In all three marine species, blood is supplied to the ophthalmic rete. The main source of blood supply to the rete is the basilar rete via the spinal rete in the dolphin and via the ophthalmic artery in the seal and sea lion. The retinal and choroidal arteries are derived from the rete. The dolphin rete showed a very well-developed arterial network occupying most of the orbit. The rete in pinnipeds was less developed with several entwining arteries, unlike that in cetaceans. Thermographic examination revealed that the eye shows a higher degree of thermal emission than adjacent areas of the skin in these 3 species.


The role of the rete in aquatic mammals appears to conserve ocular temperature so that the appropriate operating temperature for photoreceptors and ocular muscles can be maintained in a cold ambient temperature. Additionally, the rete might have a flow-damping effect by maintaining resistance to blood flow in the orbit. This study highlights the special nature of ocular vascular anatomy and function that enabled the unique adaptation of aquatic mammals to life in aquatic habitats.