PLOS ONE (2017)

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0175037


Complex foldings of the vaginal wall are unique to some cetaceans and artiodactyls and are of unknown function(s). The patterns of vaginal length and cumulative vaginal fold length were assessed in relation to body length and to each other in a phylogenetic context to derive insights into functionality. The reproductive tracts of 59 female cetaceans (20 species, 6 families) were dissected. Phylogenetically-controlled reduced major axis regressions were used to establish a scaling trend for the female genitalia of cetaceans. An unparalleled level of vaginal diversity within a mammalian order was found. Vaginal folds varied in number and size across species, and vaginal fold length was positively allometric with body length. Vaginal length was not a significant predictor of vaginal fold length. Functional hypotheses regarding the role of vaginal folds and the potential selection pressures that could lead to evolution of these structures are discussed. Vaginal folds may present physical barriers, which obscure the pathway of seawater and/or sperm travelling through the vagina. This study contributes broad insights to the evolution of reproductive morphology and aquatic adaptations and lays the foundation for future functional morphology analyses.