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Written by: Liberty Hightower
Wednesday July 15, 2015

Recently, while cataloging river otter (Lontra canadensis) skulls, I became fascinated with the insides of their nasal cavities. The intricate webbing that is seen within many mammals’ nasal cavities is known as turbinates. This maze is made of bone and is extremely important for the animal that it resides in. There are two main functions of nasal turbinates: respiratory (breathing) and olfaction (smelling).

In terms of respiratory function, the turbinates help animals warm and moisten the air that they are breathing in before it reaches their lungs. These turbinates also help to conserve water by absorbing some of the moisture in the breath that an animal is about to exhale.  Otters live a great deal of their life in water, where body heat loss is high, and so it makes sense that they need complex turbinates.

Figure One. Otter skull showing the complex web of turbinates in the nasal cavity. Photo credit: L. HightowerFigure One. Otter skull showing the complex web of turbinates in the nasal cavity. Photo credit: L. Hightower

The second function of nasal turbinates is for olfaction. The increased surface area that the turbinates provide allow for greater reception of smells. Dogs (Canis lupus familirais) are known for their great sense of smell and their long nasal cavity helps to provide room for enlarged turbinates.

Figure Two. Dog skull showing the complex turbinates in the nasal cavity. Photo credit: L. HightowerFigure Two. Dog skull showing the complex turbinates in the nasal cavity. Photo credit: L. Hightower

Whether the reason behind large intricate turbinates in a skull is for respiratory, olfaction, or both, they are something to be appreciated and admired.

Figure Three. Nasal turbinates that had fallen out of a White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn skull. Phot credit: L. HightowerFigure Three. Nasal turbinates that had fallen out of a White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn skull. Phot credit: L. Hightower

For more information on nasal turbinates see:

Green, P. A., Van Valkenburgh, B., Pang, B., Bird, D., Rowe, T. and Curtis, A. 2012., Respiratory and olfactory turbinal size in canid and arctoid carnivorans. Journal of Anatomy 221: 609–621
Van Valkenburgh B, Curtis A, Samuels JX, et al. 2011. Aquatic adaptations in the nose of carnivorans: evidence from the turbinates. Journal of Anatomy 218(3): 298-310

Tags: Biology, Liberty Hightower, Research and Collections

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