Functional Morphology of the Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) Tongue, with Reference to Suction Feeding

Abstract: Gross and microscopic examination of the tongue and hyolingual apparatus of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) revealed numerous distinct differences from those of other toothed whales and dolphins, largely reflecting the tongue’s atypical position, relations, and size, and its primary role in suction ingestion, rather than prey prehension or transport, as in many other odontocetes. Unlike other odontocetes, the sperm whale has a short, wide tongue that is uniquely situated at the rear of the open oral cavity. Since the tongue does not extend to the tooth row, which runs along the elongated median mandibular symphysis, it cannot easily reorient grasped prey items, yet it can position them to be swallowed or sucked directly into the oropharyngeal opening. The scarcity of intrinsic lingual musculature (m. lingualis proprius), coupled with the relatively large paired extrinsic muscles inserting in the tongue—notably the m. hyoglossus, whose profuse fibers comprise much of the tongue root, and the m. genioglossus—suggests the tongue mainly undergoes positional, rather than shape, changes as it is retracted by the hyoid to generate negative intraoral pressures to capture and ingest prey items via suction. The tongue possesses numerous longitudinal folds or plicae, but almost no free tip; its slightly convex dorsum bears deep fissures and few sensory receptors in a multilayered and predominantly aglandular horny epithelium.

Key Words: sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, tongue, hyoid, myology, morphology, suction feeding

Document Type: Research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.30.3.2004.405

Page Numbers: 405-418

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