Quirks & Quarks

Stretchy Nerves Help Baleen Whales Open Wide

Baleen whales that feed by taking in large quantities of water in their expanding mouth need specialized nerves that stretch like bungee cords.

Lunge-feeding whales' stretchy mouths need stretchy nerves

Expansion of the ventral grooved blubber during a fin whale lunge. (University of British Columbia)
Rorqual whales - including blue, fin and humpback - are among the biggest baleen whales around. In a process called lunge feeding, they take in quantities of water - and their prey - greater than their already massive body size.

They are able to do this because the oral cavity expands to accommodate the water. This was known before, but not all of the mechanisms that make it possible were well understood.

Now, new research by Dr. Wayne Vogl, from the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has identified a unique nerve structure in the mouth of the whale than can double in length, similar to a bungee cord. Similar stretching in humans, for example, would result in painful nerve damage.    

Related Links

Paper in Current Biology
- University of British Columbia release
CBC News story
Not Exactly Rocket Science blog