The epidermal sensory organs of members of the family Talpidae (moles, shrew-moles, and desmans) were investigated and compared to determine the range of sensory specializations and better understand how they evolved. Small domed mechanosensory organs called ‘Eimer’s organs’ were present on the rhinarium of nearly all species of talpids, but not among the sister group of shrews (Soricidae) or other insectivore families. This suggests that the common ancestor to the talpids possessed Eimer’s organs. Two species of moles from the driest habitats did not exhibit Eimer’s organs – suggesting that their sensory organs degenerated in response to harsh, abrasive soil conditions. The semi-aquatic desmans uniquely possessed tiny sensory hairs interspersed with their Eimer’s organs; these may act to sense water currents. Some species exhibited a subdivided, star-like, rhinarium – resembling an early embryonic stage of the star-nosed mole and providing clues to the evolution of the star. A single genera (Uropsilus) that branched off early in the evolution of the talpids had Eimer’s organ-like structures but lacked some typical components. These findings fill a major gap in our knowledge of talpid sensory biology and suggest (1) how Eimer’s organs evolved, (2) how the unusual appendages of the star-nosed mole evolved, (3) that the evolution of Eimer’s organ is convergent with the mechanosensory push-rod of monotremes. The results also demonstrate the features that distinguish Eimer’s organ from similar configurations of sensory receptors in other mammalian skin surfaces. Finally, a mechanism for Eimer’s organ function in detecting object and prey specific surface features is proposed.
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