Structure of the cerebral cortex of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae (Cetacea, Mysticeti, Balaenopteridae).
Cetaceans diverged from terrestrial mammals between 50 and 60 million years ago and acquired, during their adaptation to a fully aquatic milieu, many derived features, including echolocation (in odontocetes), remarkable auditory and communicative abilities, as well as a complex social organization. Whereas brain structure has been documented in detail in some odontocetes, few reports exist on its organization in mysticetes. We studied the cerebral cortex of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in comparison to another balaenopterid, the fin whale, and representative odontocetes. We observed several differences between Megaptera and odontocetes, such as a highly clustered organization of layer II over the occipital and inferotemporal neocortex, whereas such pattern is restricted to the ventral insula in odontocetes. A striking observation in Megaptera was the presence in layer V of the anterior cingulate, anterior insular, and frontopolar cortices of large spindle cells, similar in morphology and distribution to those described in hominids, suggesting a case of parallel evolution. They were also observed in the fin whale and the largest odontocetes, but not in species with smaller brains or body size. The hippocampal formation, unremarkable in odontocetes, is further diminutive in Megaptera, contrasting with terrestrial mammals. As in odontocetes, clear cytoarchitectural patterns exist in the neocortex of Megaptera, making it possible to define many cortical domains. These observations demonstrate that Megaptera differs from Odontoceti in certain aspects of cortical cytoarchitecture and may provide a neuromorphologic basis for functional and behavioral differences between the suborders as well as a reflection of their divergent evolution.