Existence of vocal folds in the larynx of odontoceti (toothed whales)

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Odontocetes (toothed whales) vocalize for communication and echolocation. The mechanisms of sound production, however, remain unclear. Their larynx has long been thought to lack vocal folds and, thus, was considered incapable of generating sounds. This study investigates internal anatomy of the odontocete larynx to: 1) describe the morphology of any fold found, 2) determine any structural homologies between these folds and the vocal folds of terrestrial mammals, and 3) assess their possible function in sound production. Larynges of 24 odontocetes representin ten genera (Delphinus, Stenella, Lagenorhynchus, Tursiops, Grampus, Delphinapterus, Globicephala, Kogia, Mesoplodon, and Phocoena) were studied post mortem. Nine specimens were cut midsagittally, and the remainder were dorsally opened to reveal internal anatomy. Results show that, contrary to established belief, vocal folds are consistently present. They are not isolated bands or “cords” but appear continuous with the internal laryngeal membrane. The attachments of these folds are the same as in terrestrial mammals, thus indicating homology with true mammalian vocal folds. These folds extend from the midline of the thyroid cartilage to the base of the arytenoid cartilages, sometimes to a discrete process. The vocal folds are elongated and oriented in a vertical plane, parallel to airflow direction. Vocal fold morphology varies, appearing as true bifurcated structures, a trifurcated fold, or a single midline fold. Laryngeal ventricles and vestibular folds are also consistently found lateral to the vocal folds. The vocal folds may divide the airstream within the into three separate air currents. Fold vibrations may produce initial laryngeal sounds used in echolocation or communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)884-891
Number of pages8
JournalAnatomical Record
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1988


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