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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2012 Jun 1;177(2):238-45. doi: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2012.04.012. Epub 2012 Apr 23.

Evidence of melatonin secretion in cetaceans: plasma concentration and extrapineal HIOMT-like presence in the bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus.

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Department of Comparative Biomedicine and Food Science, University of Padova, Legnaro, PD, Italy.


The pineal gland is generally believed to be absent in cetaceans, although few and subsequently unconfirmed reports described the organ in some species. The recent description of a complete and photographed pineal body in a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) prompted us to examine a series of 29 brains of the same species, but no gland was found. We then decided to investigate if the main product of the gland, melatonin, was nevertheless produced and present in the plasma of this species. We collected plasma and serum samples from a series of captive bottlenose dolphins for a period of 7 months spanning from winter to summer and we determined the indoleamine concentration by radio-immunoassay (RIA). The results demonstrated for the first time a quantitative assessment of melatonin production in the blood of a cetacean. Melatonin levels were comparable to those of terrestrial mammals (5.15-27.74 pg/ml daylight concentration), with indications of both seasonal and daily variation although the presence of a circadian rhythm remains uncertain. Immunohistochemical analyses using as a marker hydroxyindole-O-methyl-transferase (HIOMT, the key enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of the hormone), suggested extrapineal melatonin production by the retina, the Harderian gland and the gut. The enzyme was unequivocally localized in all the three tissues, and, specifically, ganglion cells in the retina showed a very strong HIOMT-immunoreactivity. Our results suggest that further research might reveal unexplored aspects of melatonin production in cetaceans and deserves special attention and further efforts.

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