Retinal Topography in Two Species of Baleen Whale (Cetacea: Mysticeti)

Thomas J. Lisney, Shaun P. Collin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

4 Citations (Scopus)


Little is known about the visual systems of large baleen whales (Mysticeti: Cetacea). In this study, we investigate eye morphology and the topographic distribution of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in two species of mysticete, Bryde's whale (<italic>Balaenoptera edeni</italic>) and the humpback whale (<italic>Megaptera novaeanglia</italic>). Both species have large eyes characterised by a thickened cornea, a heavily thickened sclera, a highly vascularised fibro-Adipose bundle surrounding the optic nerve at the back of the eye, and a reflective blue-green tapetum fibrosum. Using stereology and retinal whole mounts, we estimate a total of 274,268 and 161,371 RGCs in the Bryde's whale and humpback whale retinas, respectively. Both species have a similar retinal topography, consisting of nasal and temporal areas of high RGC density, suggesting that having higher visual acuity in the anterior and latero-caudal visual fields is particularly important in these animals. The temporal area is larger in both species and contains the peak RGC densities (160 cells mm -2 in the humpback whale and 200 cells mm -2 in Bryde's whale). In the Bryde's whale retina, the two high-density areas are connected by a weak centro-ventral visual streak, but such a specialisation is not evident in the humpback whale. Measurements of RGC soma area reveal that although the RGCs in both species vary substantially in size, RGC soma area is inversely proportional to RGC density, with cells in the nasal and temporal high-density areas being relatively more homogeneous in size compared to the RGCs in the central retina and the dorsal and ventral retinal periphery. Some of the RGCs were very large, with soma areas of over 2,000 μm 2 . Using peak RGC density and eye axial diameter (Bryde's whale: 63.5 mm; humpback whale: 48.5 mm), we estimated the peak anatomical spatial resolving power in water to be 4.8 cycles/degree and 3.3 cycles/degree in the Bryde's whale and the humpback whale, respectively. Overall, our findings for these two species are very similar to those reported for other species of cetaceans. This indicates that, irrespective of the significant differences in body size and shape, behavioural ecology and feeding strategy between mysticetes and odontocetes (toothed whales), cetacean eyes are adapted to vision in dim light and adhere to a common "bauplan" that evolved prior to the divergence of the two cetacean parvorders (Odontoceti and Mysticeti) over 30 million years ago.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-116
Number of pages20
JournalBrain, Behavior and Evolution
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019

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