Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Uranocetus and hearing in mysticetes

Hey Folks, Sorry about the delay; I realize its been over a month since I last posted anything. Winter break was not exactly relaxing, and the parts that neared relaxation were spent doing fieldwork (which definitely yielded some interesting material). In other news, my first technical paper has been tentatively accepted for publication by the UCMP-published journal PaleoBios; I'm approximately 99% done with revisions at this point, so you'll hear more about it after it's in press.

Recently two mysticete related papers have been published - Erich Fitzgerald's monograph on the truly bizarre Mammalodon colliveri, which I'll cover later, and M.E. Steeman's (2009) thought provoking paper naming the new "cetothere" Uranocetus from the Miocene of Denmark and its implications for mysticete hearing.

The cranium of Uranocetus, from Steeman (2009).

First off, "cetotheres" are a wastebasket group of generalized archaic baleen whales that don't fit nicely in modern families, although Bouetel and Muizon (2006) have redefined the Cetotheriidae sensu stricto as a small group with some very strange cranial features, including my personal favorite, Herpetocetus. Most other cetotheres (Cetotheriidae sensu lato) were placed into newly named families (Pelocetidae, Aglaocetidae, and Diorocetidae) which were sister taxa to the Balaenopteridae all included in her concept of the Balaenopteroidea (but not in the concept of the Balaenopteroidea advocated by Demere et al. 2005, which is Eschrictiidae + Balaenopteridae). Bottom line is Uranocetus is some kind of stem baleen-bearing mysticete, no matter whose phylogeny you use. The dentary of Uranocetus (from Steeman, 2009).
Interestingly, while it is placed rather close to Balaenopteridae, it still retains a large mandibular foramen, a plesiomorphic feature for mysticetes. The mandibular foramen is very small in extant mysticetes, but extremely large in odontocetes, so much that the posterior portion of the dentary is a thin bony shell (the "pan bone") that houses the mandibular fat pad. The lateral margin of the dentary is extremely thin, so that high frequency sounds can pass through without significant volume loss (Nummela et al. 2007, Steeman 2009). High and mid frequency sounds pass through this, and are then channeled up through the mandibular fat pad and up to the tympanic plate; in odontocetes, this is more or less a functional analog of the external ear pinna. And, by the way, all these strange auditory features are adaptations for allowing directional hearing underwater; otherwise terrestrial mammals hear via bone conduction hearing (sound travels faster in water, and the mammalian body is roughly as dense as the surrounding aqueous medium), and sounds more or less arrive at each ear too quickly to discern the direction. Cetaceans have separated their ear bones (petrosal, tympanic, and ossicles) from the temporal bone and surrounded them by sinuses to isolate these complexes from the skull to hear directionally. While this was initially thought to be an adaptation for hearing high frequency sounds and thus an adaptation for echolocation (a capability restricted to the odontoceti, and associated with high frequency sounds), recent research has identified the pan bone/enlarged mandibular foramen (i.e. bony correlates of the mandibular fat pad) in many archaeocetes, including Ambulocetus, remingtonocetids, protocetids, and basilosaurids (Nummela et al. 2007) as well as many archaic toothed- and toothless mysticetes, such as Aetiocetus weltoni, Mammalodon, Eomysticetus, and even Herpetocetus. This led Nummela et al. (2007) to reason that, since neither archaeocetes or mysticetes have any anatomical features associated with echolocation, that this feature is probably instead related to underwater hearing in general, and not just echolocation.
Dentaries of various archaic mysticetes and an archaeocete, from Fitzgerald (2009).

The fact that most basal mysticetes have an enlarged mandibular foramen suggests that this is a feature inherited from basilosaurid ancestors. Interestingly, modern mysticetes are adapted for hearing low frequency sounds, which pass through dense bone without significant volume loss. While Uranocetus has a large mandibular foramen, the lateral wall is too thick to be useful for hearing anything aside from low frequency sounds (which Uranocetus is adapted to hear based on its cochlear structure; Steeman 2009). The exact same thing is seen in Herpetocetus, which is also adapted for low frequency hearing, but has a large foramen with a thick lateral wall. This suggests that at least in these later diverging taxa, that the large mandibular foramen was a vestigial feature perpetuated by phylogenetic inertia.
Lateral aspect of a (not so typical) mysticete (Eshrichtius robustus, the Gray Whale) skull and dentary in articulation, from Johnston et al. (2009).

Steeman (2009) reasoned that the mandibular foramen decreased in size to strengthen the dentary due to the intense forces involved during feeding. Above shows a gray whale skull and mandible in articulation, just to give you an idea of how strange the mysticete feeding apparatus is (exclusive of baleen). In any event, I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and got to add a (very short) synopsis of this in my manuscript revisions, but you'll hear about that soon enough.

Deméré, T.A. and A. Berta (2008). Cranial anatomy of the toothed mysticete Aetiocetus weltoni and its implications for aetiocetid phylogeny. Zoological Journal of Linnean Society, 154(2): 308-352. PDF

Deméré, T.A., A. Berta, and M.R. McGowen. 2005. The taxonomic and evolutionary history of fossil and modern balaenopteroid mysticetes. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 12:99-143.

Fitzgerald, E.M.G. 2009. The morphology and systematics of Mammalodon colliveri (Cetacea:Mysticeti), a toothed mysticete from the Oligocene of Australia. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 110p.

Johnston, C., T. Deméré, A. Berta, J. St. Leger and J. Yonas. 2009. Observations on the musculoskeletal anatomy of the head of a neonate gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Marine Mammal Science PDF

Nummela, S., J.G.M. Thewissen, S. Bajpai, T. Hussain, and K. Kumar. 2007. Sound transmision in archaic and modern whales: anatomical adaptations for underwater hearing. Anatomical Record 290:716-733.

Steeman, M.E. 2009. A new baleen whale from the late Miocene of Denmark and early mysticete hearing. Palaeontology 52 :1169-1190.

No comments: