The dolphin cochlear nucleus: Topography, histology and functional implications.
Despite the outstanding auditory capabilities of dolphins, there is only limited information available on the cytology of the auditory brain stem nuclei in these animals. Here, we investigated the cochlear nuclei (CN) of five brains of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and La Plata dolphins (Pontoporia blainvillei) using cell and fiber stain microslide series representing the three main anatomical planes. In general, the CN in dolphins comprise the same set of subnuclei as in other mammals. However, the volume ratio of the dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN) in relation to the ventral cochlear nucleus (VCN) of dolphins represents a minimum among the mammals examined so far. Because, for example, in cats the DCN is necessary for reflexive orientation of the head and pinnae towards a sound source, the massive restrictions in head movability in dolphins and the absence of outer ears may be correlated with the reduction of the DCN. Moreover, the same set of main neuron types were found in the dolphin CN as in other mammals, including octopus and multipolar cells. Because the latter two types of neurons are thought to be involved in the recognition of complex sounds, including speech, we suggest that, in dolphins, they may be involved in the processing of their communication signals. Comparison of the toothed whale species studied here revealed that large spherical cells were present in the La Plata dolphin but absent in the common dolphin. These neurons are known to be engaged in the processing of low-frequency sounds in terrestrial mammals. Accordingly, in the common dolphin, the absence of large spherical cells seems to be correlated with a shift of its auditory spectrum into the high-frequency range above 20 kHz. The existence of large spherical cells in the VCN of the La Plata dolphin, however, is enigmatic asthis species uses frequencies around 130 kHz.
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