Study of eco morphology of the vertebral column in cetaceans

Amandine Gillet is a PhD student from the Laboratory of Functional and Evolutionary Morphology (University of Liège, Belgium). The main aim of her study is to understand how the differences in vertebral shape observed in several species of dolphins, whales and porpoises can be linked to the different habitats in which they live. For example, how can we explain that some dolphins are able to easily swim in very shallow waters while others species can only be encountered in deep offshore waters? As forward propulsion in water is achieved by undulations of the backbone in cetaceans, they assume that differences in vertebral shape should result in differences in swimming movements and abilities.

During the first part of this project, Amandine measured vertebrae of several species of cetaceans in Natural History Museums worldwide. For the second part of the project, she is currently recording underwater videos of dolphins at the Moorea Dolphin Center with high-speed cameras. Each video will then be analyzed frame-by-frame in order to understand how vertebral morphology is linked to swimming movements. The data collected should then allow her to better understand why some species are adapted to coastal and riverine habitats while other are adapted to an offshore lifestyle.