Anatomical and physiological studies of bigheaded carps demonstrate that the epibranchial organ functions as a pharyngeal taste organ

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The epibranchial organ (EO) is an enigmatic tubular organ found in the pharyngeal cavity of many filter-feeding fishes. We investigated whether it might function as a taste organ that mediates aggregation and ingestion of planktonic food within the buccal cavity. The EO and associated structures of bighead and silver carps, two successful and invasive planktivorous fishes, were examined using histological and electrophysiological techniques. Both species possess finely structured gill rakers that extend directly via a series of protrusions into each of the four blind canals which are organized as the muscular EO, suggesting that the gill rakers and EO probably function in an integrated manner. Both the interior and exterior surfaces of the EOs of both species are covered with high densities of taste buds and solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs) as well as mucous cells. Conversely, taste buds are scarce in both the buccal cavities and external portions of the head and mouth of both species. Electrophysiological recordings from a caudal branch of the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) found to innervate the EO showed it to be sensitive to chemicals found in a planktonic diet. l-Amino acids accounted for some, but not all of the neural activity. We conclude that taste buds and SCCs located on the EO and gill rakers probably serve to chemically detect food particles, which the EO then aggregates by mucus secretion before eventually expelling them onto the floor of the pharynx for ingestion. This specialized, pharyngeal chemosensory structure may explain the feeding success of these, and perhaps other planktivorous, filter-feeding fishes.

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The Journal of experimental biology

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