Tastes are a privilege. The oral sensations not only satisfy foodies, but also on a primal level, protect animals from toxic substances. Yet cetaceans—whales and dolphins—may lack this crucial ability, according to a new study. Mutations in a cetacean ancestor obliterated their basic machinery for four of the five primary tastes, making them the first group of mammals to have lost the majority of this sensory system.
The five primary tastes are sweet, bitter, umami (savory), sour, and salty. These flavors are recognized by taste receptors—proteins that coat neurons embedded in the tongue. For the most part, taste receptor genes present across all vertebrates.
Except, it seems, cetaceans. Researchers uncovered a massive loss of taste receptors in these animals by screening the genomes of 15 species. The investigation spanned the two major lineages of cetaceans: Krill-loving baleen whales—such as bowheads and minkes—were surveyed along with those with teeth, like bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales.
The taste genes weren’t gone per se, but were irreparably damaged by mutations, the team reports online this month in Genome Biology and Evolution. Genes encode proteins, which in turn execute certain functions in cells. Certain errors in the code can derail protein production—at which point the gene becomes a “pseudogene” or a lingering shell of a trait forgotten. Identical pseudogene corpses were discovered across the different cetacean species for sweet, bitter, umami, and sour taste receptors. Salty tastes were the only exception.
“The loss of bitter taste is a complete surprise, because natural toxins typically taste bitter,” says zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China who led the study. All whales likely descend from raccoon-esque raoellids, a group of herbivorous land mammals that transitioned to the sea where they became fish eaters. Plants range in flavors—from sugary apples to tart, poisonous rhubarb leaves—and to survive, primitive animals learned the taste cues that signal whether food is delicious or dangerous. Based on the findings, taste dissipated after this common ancestor became fully aquatic—53 million years ago—but before the group split 36 million years ago into toothed and baleen whales.
“Pseudogenes arise when a trait is no longer needed,” says evolutionary biologist Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study. “So it still raises the question as to why whales could afford to lose four of the five primary tastes.” The retention of salty taste receptors suggests that they have other vital roles, such as maintaining sodium levels and blood pressure.
But dulled taste perception might be dangerous if noxious substances spill into the water. Orcas have unwittingly migrated into oil spills, while algal toxins created by fertilizer runoff consistently seep into the fish prey of dolphins living off the Florida coast.
“When you have a sense of taste, it dictates whether you swallow or not,” says Danielle Reed, a geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was not involved with the current work, but co-authored a 2012 paper that found the first genetic inklings that umami and sweet taste receptors were missing in cetaceans, albeit in only one species—bottlenose dolphins.
Flavors are typically released by chewing, but cetaceans tend to swallow their food whole. “The message seems clear. If you don’t chew your food and prefer swallowing food whole, then taste really becomes irrelevant,” Reed says.