Monday, November 18, 2019

Watermelon Heads: 
The “Watermelon” described above is probably not the watermelon you are thinking of. The watermelon in the title refers to the glob of fat known simply as “the melon”, that lies just anterior to the brains of the Odontoceti (toothed whales). Why do these mammals possess this feature? It is not for insulation of the brain in the animal’s surrounding wet and frigid environment. Rather, it acts as a kind of lens, as those you find in eyes, except this lens does not refract and focus EM waves; instead, it refracts sound waves. And not incoming sound waves, but outgoing sound waves!

Where you or I might wear glasses to direct incoming EM waves into our eyes so that images appear more sharply, Odontoceti direct outgoing sound waves from their heads to communicate with other members of their species. They also use their melons to direct sound waves for hunting; this is referred to as echolocation, or more commonly, as sonar. The melon is the integral structure responsible for echolocation in many water mammals, the most famous of these being dolphins. Originating in the head, Odontoceti hum, click and whistle through their melons to find the position of the food they are hunting. An article from Marine Mammal Science describes the design and mechanisms that allow the melon to act as a sound lens. Its shape, size, position in relation to other head structures, and the distribution of adipose tissue and fatty acids all contribute to the melon serving its unique and important function. For peak performance in echolocation, melons set a lower sound limit for whale calls so that the mammals can efficiently transmit high pitched sounds through the aqueous environment. Odontoceti calls are generally very high pitched at levels around 100kHz. 

One of the key components of the melon is its concentration of isovaleric acid (abbreviated iso5:0). Among other acids, iso5:0 makes up about half of the acid composition in the melon and, compared to other tissues in the whale body,  is most concentrated in the melon. This acid is important both for echolocation and also for hearing in toothed whales. In addition to aiding with sonar, some researchers believe that isovaleric acid may have another important function in the melon. Even when Odontoceti whales are in conditions in which food is not available, the iso5:0 concentration remains constant. Their bodies will not utilize this precious bit of fat in their heads even when they’re starving! Isovaleric acid may be the key to a more complete understanding of precisely how the melon operates in toothed whales. 

Odontoceti whales have an additional glob of fat besides the brain that makes them special. These melons in their heads actually transform their voices into a new way of seeing. Imagine singing through your forehead to know where everything is!

- David Frykenberg (Week 10)


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