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J Exp Biol. 2010 Apr;213(Pt 7):1175-81. doi: 10.1242/jeb.040105.

The relationship of head movements to semicircular canal size in cetaceans.

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Department of Otolaryngology, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, MO, USA.


The semicircular canals measure head rotations, providing information critical for maintaining equilibrium. The canals of cetaceans (including whales, dolphins and porpoises) are extraordinarily small, making them unique exceptions to the allometric relationship shared by all other vertebrates between canal size and animal mass. Most modern cetaceans have shorter and less flexible necks than those of their ancestors, an adaptation hypothesized to have led to exaggerated head movements during locomotion. These movements are thought to have necessitated a decrease in the size and sensitivity of the canals, increasing their operating range to accommodate increased head motion. We tested whether the size of the semicircular canals in cetaceans is related to their head movements by comparing the rotational head velocities, frequencies and accelerations of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and a terrestrial relative, cattle (Bos taurus), using an array of three orthogonal head-fixed miniaturized rotational ratemeters. We collected data during typical locomotion (swimming; trotting) and during behaviors with enhanced head movements (rapid spiraling underwater; bucking). Cattle head movements always exceeded those of dolphins. Maximum head velocities were 528 deg. s(-1) in dolphins and 534 deg. s(-1) in cattle; maximum head frequencies were 2.86 Hz in dolphins and 3.45 Hz in cattle; and maximum head accelerations were 5253 deg. s(-2) in dolphins and 10,880 deg. s(-2) in cattle. These results indicate that accentuated head movements cannot explain the reduced size and sensitivity of cetacean semicircular canals. The evolutionary cause for their reduced canal size remains uncertain.

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