Some Whales Have “Bungee Cord” Nerves

Written by on May 11, 2015 in Marine Life, Whales & Dolphins
Mouth of a minke whale with distinct grooves in its throat. Photo credit: Denise Risch, NEFSC/NOAA.

Mouth of a minke whale with distinct grooves in its throat. Photo credit: Denise Risch, NEFSC/NOAA.

Most baleen whales have rather large mouths that expand to enormous sizes when feeding. This is particularly true of rorqual whales – a group that includes blue, fin, minke and humpback whales, in addition to four other species. Rorqual whales can be distinguished from other baleen whales by the deep grooves they all have down their throats. Those grooves expand when they feed and new research shows that’s not the only thing that expands.

Researchers from University of British Columbia (UBC) recently discovered that a nerve structure in the mouth and tongue of rorqual whales can double in length. Unlike human nerves, the whales’ stretchy nerve can easily bounce back into place.

“This discovery was totally unexpected and unlike other nerve structures we’ve seen in vertebrates, which are of a more fixed length,” Wayne Vogl of UBC’s Cellular and Physiological Sciences department explained in a news release.

The research revealed that the nerve cells are packaged differently inside a central core so the nerve fibers themselves aren’t being stretched, they’re simply unfolding.

Fin whale.

Fin whale. Photo credit: NOAA.

“Our next step is to get a better understanding of how the nerve core is folded to allow its rapid unpacking and re-packing during the feeding process,” said UBC zoologist Robert Shadwick.

“This discovery underscores how little we know about even the basic anatomy of the largest animals alive in the oceans today,” said Nick Pyenson, a UBC postdoctoral fellow and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “Our findings add to the growing list of evolutionary solutions that whales evolved in response to new challenges faced in marine environments over millions of years.”

It is possible that similar mechanisms are used in other animals, like frogs with ballooning throats or chameleons with long tongues.

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Copyright © 2015 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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