A Myelin Map of Trunk Folds in the Elephant Trigeminal Nucleus

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    This potentially valuable study uses classic neuroanatomical techniques and synchrotron X-ray tomography to investigate the mapping of the trunk within the brainstem nuclei of the elephant brain. Given its unique specializations, understanding the somatosensory projections from the elephant trunk would be of general interest to evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and animal behavior scientists. However, the anatomical analysis is inadequate to support the authors' conclusion that they have identified the elephant trigeminal sensory nuclei rather than a different brain region, specifically the inferior olive.

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Abstract

Elephants have elaborate trunk skills and large, but poorly understood brains. Here we study trunk representations in elephant trigeminal nuclei, which form large protrusions on the ventral brainstem. Dense vascularization and intense cytochrome-oxidase reactivity distinguish several elongated putative trunk modules, which repeat in the anterior-posterior direction; our analysis focuses on the most anterior and largest of the units, the putative nucleus principalis trunk module. Module neuron density is low and glia outnumbers neurons by ∼108:1. Dendritic trees are elongated along the axis of axon bundles (myelin stripes) transversing the trunk module. Furthermore, synchrotron X-ray phase contrast tomography suggests myelin-stripe-axons transverse the trunk module. We show a remarkable correspondence of trunk module myelin stripes and trunk folds. Myelin stripes show little relation to trigeminal neurons and stripe-axons appear to often go nowhere; these observations suggest to the possibility that myelin-stripes might serve to separate trunk-fold domains rather than to connect neurons. The myelin-stripes-to-folds mapping allowed to determine neural magnification factors, which changed from 1000:1 proximally to 5:1 in the trunk finger. Asian elephants have fewer (∼640,000) trunk-module neurons than Africans (∼740,000) and show enlarged representations of trunk parts involved in object wrapping. We conclude the elephant trigeminal trunk module is exquisitely organized into trunk-fold-related units.

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  1. Author Response

    eLife assessment

    This potentially valuable study uses classic neuroanatomical techniques and synchrotron X-ray tomography to investigate the mapping of the trunk within the brainstem nuclei of the elephant brain. Given its unique specializations, understanding the somatosensory projections from the elephant trunk would be of general interest to evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and animal behavior scientists. However, the anatomical analysis is inadequate to support the authors' conclusion that they have identified the elephant trigeminal sensory nuclei rather than a different brain region, specifically the inferior olive.

    Comment: We are happy that our paper is considered to be potentially valuable. Also, the editors highlight the potential interest of our work for evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and animal behavior scientists. The editors are more negative when it comes to our evidence on the identification of the trigeminal nucleus vs the inferior olive. We have five comments on this assessment. (i) We think this assessment is heavily biased by the comments of referee 2. We will show that the referee’s comments are more about us than about our paper. Hence, the referee failed to do their job (refereeing our paper) and should not have succeeded in leveling our paper. (ii) We have no ad hoc knock-out experiments to distinguish the trigeminal nucleus vs the inferior olive. Such experiments (extracellular recording & electrolytic lesions, viral tracing would be done in a week in mice, but they cannot and should not be done in elephants. (iii) We have extraordinary evidence. Nobody has ever described a similarly astonishing match of body (trunk folds) and myeloarchitecture in the trigeminal system before. (iv) We will show that our assignment of the trigeminal nucleus vs the inferior olive is more plausible than the current hypothesis about the assignment of the trigeminal nucleus vs the inferior olive as defended by referee 2. We think this is why it is important to publish our paper. (v) We think eLife is the perfect place for our publication because the deviating views of referee 2 are published along.

    Change: We performed additional peripherin-antibody staining to differentiate the inferior olive and trigeminal nucleus. Peripherin is a cytoskeletal protein that is found in peripheral nerves and climbing fibers. Specifically, climbing fibers of various species (mouse, rabbit, pig, cow, and human; Errante et al., 1998) are stained intensely with peripherin-antibodies. What is tricky for our purposes is that there is also some peripherin-antibody reactivity in the trigeminal nuclei (Errante et al., 1998). Such peripherin-antibody reactivity is weaker, however, and lacks the distinct axonal bundle signature that stems from the strong climbing fiber peripherin-reactivity as seen in the inferior olive (Errante et al., 1998). As can be seen in Author response image 1, we observe peripherin-reactivity in axonal bundles (i.e. in putative climbing fibers), in what we think is the inferior olive. We also observe weak peripherin-reactivity, in what we think is the trigeminal nucleus, but not the distinct and strong labeling of axonal bundles. These observations are in line with our ideas but are difficult to reconcile with the views of the referee. Specifically, the lack of peripherin-reactive axon bundles suggests that there are no climbing fibres in what the referee thinks is the inferior olive.

    Errante, L., Tang, D., Gardon, M., Sekerkova, G., Mugnaini, E., & Shaw, G. (1998). The intermediate filament protein peripherin is a marker for cerebellar climbing fibres. Journal of neurocytology, 27, 69-84.

    Author response image 1.

    The putative inferior olive but not the putative trigeminal nucleus contains peripherin-positive axon bundles (presumptive climbing fibers). (A) Overview picture of a brainstem section stained with anti-peripherin-antibodies (white color). Anti-peripherin-antibodies stain climbing fibers in a wide variety of mammals. The section comes from the posterior brainstem of African elephant cow Bibi; in this posterior region, both putative inferior olive and trigeminal nucleus are visible. Note the bright staining of the dorsolateral nucleus, the putative inferior olive according to Reveyaz et al., and the trigeminal nucleus according to Maseko et al., 2013. (B) High magnification view of the dorsolateral nucleus (corresponding to the upper red rectangle in A). Anti-peripherin-positive axon bundles (putative climbing fibers) are seen in support of the inferior olive hypothesis of Reveyaz et al. (C) High magnification view of the ventromedial nucleus (corresponding to the lower red rectangle in A). The ventromedial nucleus is weakly positive for peripherin but contains no anti-peripherin-positive axon bundles (i.e. no putative climbing fibers) in support of the trigeminal nucleus hypothesis of Reveyaz et al. Note that myelin stripes – weakly visible as dark omissions – are clearly anti-peripherin-negative.

    Reviewer #1:

    Summary:

    This fundamental study provides compelling neuroanatomical evidence underscoring the sensory function of the trunk in African and Asian elephants. Whereas myelinated tracts are classically appreciated as mediating neuronal connections, the authors speculate that myelinated bundles provide functional separation of trunk folds and display elaboration related to the "finger" projections. The authors avail themselves of many classical neuroanatomical techniques (including cytochrome oxidase stains, Golgi stains, and myelin stains) along with modern synchrotron X-ray tomography. This work will be of interest to evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and the general public, with its fascinating exploration of the brainstem of an icon sensory specialist.

    Comment: We are incredibly grateful for this positive assessment.

    Changes: None.

    Strengths:

    • The authors made excellent use of the precious sample materials from 9 captive elephants.
    • The authors adopt a battery of neuroanatomical techniques to comprehensively characterize the structure of the trigeminal subnuclei and properly re-examine the "inferior olive".
    • Based on their exceptional histological preparation, the authors reveal broadly segregated patterns of metabolic activity, similar to the classical "barrel" organization related to rodent whiskers.

    Comment: The referee provides a concise summary of our findings.

    Changes: None.

    Weaknesses:

    • As the authors acknowledge, somewhat limited functional description can be provided using histological analysis (compared to more invasive techniques).
    • The correlation between myelinated stripes and trunk fold patterns is intriguing, and Figure 4 presents this idea beautifully. I wonder - is the number of stripes consistent with the number of trunk folds? Does this hold for both species?

    Comment: We agree with the referee’s assessment. We note that cytochrome-oxidase staining is an at least partially functional stain, as it reveals constitutive metabolic activity. A significant problem of the work in elephants is that our recording possibilities are limited, which in turn limits functional analysis. As indicated in Figure 4 for the African elephant Indra, there was an excellent match of trunk folds and myelin stripes. Asian elephants have more, and less conspicuous trunk folds than African elephants. As illustrated in Figure 6, Asian elephants have more, and less conspicuous myelin stripes. Thus, species differences in myelin stripes correlate with species differences in trunk folds.

    Changes: We clarify the relation of myelin stripe and trunk fold patterns in our discussion of Figure 6.

    Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    The authors describe what they assert to be a very unusual trigeminal nuclear complex in the brainstem of elephants, and based on this, follow with many speculations about how the trigeminal nuclear complex, as identified by them, might be organized in terms of the sensory capacity of the elephant trunk.

    Comment: We agree with the referee’s assessment that the putative trigeminal nucleus described in our paper is highly unusual in size, position, vascularization, and myeloarchitecture. This is why we wrote this paper. We think these unusual features reflect the unique facial specializations of elephants, i.e. their highly derived trunk. Because we have no access to recordings from the elephant brainstem, we cannot back up all our functional interpretations with electrophysiological evidence; it is therefore fair to call them speculative.

    Changes: None.

    The identification of the trigeminal nuclear complex/inferior olivary nuclear complex in the elephant brainstem is the central pillar of this manuscript from which everything else follows, and if this is incorrect, then the entire manuscript fails, and all the associated speculations become completely unsupported.

    Comment: We agree.

    Changes: None.

    The authors note that what they identify as the trigeminal nuclear complex has been identified as the inferior olivary nuclear complex by other authors, citing Shoshani et al. (2006; 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2006.03.016) and Maseko et al (2013; 10.1159/000352004), but fail to cite either Verhaart and Kramer (1958; PMID 13841799) or Verhaart (1962; 10.1515/9783112519882-001). These four studies are in agreement, but the current study differs.

    Comment & Change: We were not aware of the papers of Verhaart and included them in the revised ms.

    Let's assume for the moment that the four previous studies are all incorrect and the current study is correct. This would mean that the entire architecture and organization of the elephant brainstem is significantly rearranged in comparison to ALL other mammals, including humans, previously studied (e.g. Kappers et al. 1965, The Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System of Vertebrates, Including Man, Volume 1 pp. 668-695) and the closely related manatee (10.1002/ar.20573). This rearrangement necessitates that the trigeminal nuclei would have had to "migrate" and shorten rostrocaudally, specifically and only, from the lateral aspect of the brainstem where these nuclei extend from the pons through to the cervical spinal cord (e.g. the Paxinos and Watson rat brain atlases), the to the spatially restricted ventromedial region of specifically and only the rostral medulla oblongata. According to the current paper, the inferior olivary complex of the elephant is very small and located lateral to their trigeminal nuclear complex, and the region from where the trigeminal nuclei are located by others appears to be just "lateral nuclei" with no suggestion of what might be there instead.

    Comment: We have three comments here:

    1. The referee correctly notes that we argue the elephant brainstem underwent fairly major rearrangements. In particular, we argue that the elephant inferior olive was displaced laterally, by a very large cell mass, which we argue is an unusually large trigeminal nucleus. To our knowledge, such a large compact cell mass is not seen in the ventral brain stem of any other mammal.

    2. The referee makes it sound as if it is our private idea that the elephant brainstem underwent major rearrangements and that the rest of the evidence points to a conventional ‘rodent-like’ architecture. This is far from the truth, however. Already from the outside appearance (see our Figure 1B and Figure 6A) it is clear that the elephant brainstem has huge ventral bumps not seen in any other mammal. An extraordinary architecture also holds at the organizational level of nuclei. Specifically, the facial nucleus – the most carefully investigated nucleus in the elephant brainstem – has an appearance distinct from that of the facial nuclei of all other mammals (Maseko et al., 2013; Kaufmann et al., 2022). If both the overall shape and the constituting nuclei of the brainstem are very different from other mammals, it is very unlikely if not impossible that the elephant brainstem follows in all regards a conventional ‘rodent-like’ architecture.

    3. The inferior olive is an impressive nucleus in the partitioning scheme we propose (Author response image 1). In fact – together with the putative trigeminal nucleus we describe – it’s the most distinctive nucleus in the elephant brainstem. We have not done volumetric measurements and cell counts here, but think this is an important direction for future work. What has informed our work is that the inferior olive nucleus we describe has the serrated organization seen in the inferior olive of all mammals. We will discuss these matters in depth below.

    Changes: None.

    Such an extraordinary rearrangement of brainstem nuclei would require a major transformation in the manner in which the mutations, patterning, and expression of genes and associated molecules during development occur. Such a major change is likely to lead to lethal phenotypes, making such a transformation extremely unlikely. Variations in mammalian brainstem anatomy are most commonly associated with quantitative changes rather than qualitative changes (10.1016/B978-0-12-804042-3.00045-2).

    Comment: We have two comments here:

    1. The referee claims that it is impossible that the elephant brainstem differs from a conventional brainstem architecture because this would lead to lethal phenotypes etc. Following our previous response, this argument does not hold. It is out of the question that the elephant brainstem looks very different from the brainstem of other mammals. Yet, it is also evident that elephants live. The debate we need to have is not if the elephant brainstem differs from other mammals, but how it differs from other mammals.

    2). In principle we agree with the referee’s thinking that the model of the elephant brainstem that is most likely correct is the one that requires the least amount of rearrangements to other mammals. We therefore prepared a comparison of the model the referee is proposing (Maseko et al., 2013; see Author response table 1 below) with our proposition. We scored these models on their similarity to other mammals. We find that the referee’s ideas (Maseko et al., 2013) require more rearrangements relative to other mammals than our suggestion.

    Changes: Inclusion of Author response table 1, which we discuss in depth below.

    The impetus for the identification of the unusual brainstem trigeminal nuclei in the current study rests upon a previous study from the same laboratory (10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.051) that estimated that the number of axons contained in the infraorbital branch of the trigeminal nerve that innervate the sensory surfaces of the trunk is approximately 400 000. Is this number unusual? In a much smaller mammal with a highly specialized trigeminal system, the platypus, the number of axons innervating the sensory surface of the platypus bill skin comes to 1 344 000 (10.1159/000113185). Yet, there is no complex rearrangement of the brainstem trigeminal nuclei in the brain of the developing or adult platypus (Ashwell, 2013, Neurobiology of Monotremes), despite the brainstem trigeminal nuclei being very large in the platypus (10.1159/000067195). Even in other large-brained mammals, such as large whales that do not have a trunk, the number of axons in the trigeminal nerve ranges between 400,000 and 500,000 (10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_988-1). The lack of comparative support for the argument forwarded in the previous and current study from this laboratory, and that the comparative data indicates that the brainstem nuclei do not change in the manner suggested in the elephant, argues against the identification of the trigeminal nuclei as outlined in the current study. Moreover, the comparative studies undermine the prior claim of the authors, informing the current study, that "the elephant trigeminal ganglion ... point to a high degree of tactile specialization in elephants" (10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.051). While clearly, the elephant has tactile sensitivity in the trunk, it is questionable as to whether what has been observed in elephants is indeed "truly extraordinary".

    Comment: These comments made us think that the referee is not talking about the paper we submitted, but that the referee is talking about us and our work in general. Specifically, the referee refers to the platypus and other animals dismissing our earlier work, which argued for a high degree of tactile specialization in elephants. We think the referee’s intuitions are wrong and our earlier work is valid.

    Changes: We prepared a Author response image 2 (below) that puts the platypus brain, a monkey brain, and the elephant trigeminal ganglion (which contains a large part of the trunk innervating cells) in perspective.

    Author response image 2

    The elephant trigeminal ganglion is comparatively large. Platypus brain, monkey brain, and elephant ganglion. The elephant has two trigeminal ganglia, which contain the first-order somatosensory neurons. They serve mainly for tactile processing and are large compared to a platypus brain (from the comparative brain collection) and are similar in size to a monkey brain. The idea that elephants might be highly specialized for trunk touch is also supported by the analysis of the sensory nerves of these animals (Purkart et al., 2022). Specifically, we find that the infraorbital nerve (which innervates the trunk) is much thicker than the optic nerve (which mediates vision) and the vestibulocochlear nerve (which mediates hearing). Thus, not everything is large about elephants; instead, the data argue that these animals are heavily specialized for trunk touch.

    But let's look more specifically at the justification outlined in the current study to support their identification of the unusually located trigeminal sensory nuclei of the brainstem.

    (1) Intense cytochrome oxidase reactivity.

    (2) Large size of the putative trunk module.

    (3) Elongation of the putative trunk module.

    (4) The arrangement of these putative modules corresponds to elephant head anatomy.

    (5) Myelin stripes within the putative trunk module that apparently match trunk folds.

    (6) Location apparently matches other mammals.

    (7) Repetitive modular organization apparently similar to other mammals.

    (8) The inferior olive described by other authors lacks the lamellated appearance of this structure in other mammals.

    Comment: We agree those are key issues.

    Changes: None.

    Let's examine these justifications more closely.

    (1) Cytochrome oxidase histochemistry is typically used as an indicative marker of neuronal energy metabolism. The authors indicate, based on the "truly extraordinary" somatosensory capacities of the elephant trunk, that any nuclei processing this tactile information should be highly metabolically active, and thus should react intensely when stained for cytochrome oxidase. We are told in the methods section that the protocols used are described by Purkart et al (2022) and Kaufmann et al (2022). In neither of these cited papers is there any description, nor mention, of the cytochrome oxidase histochemistry methodology, thus we have no idea of how this histochemical staining was done. To obtain the best results for cytochrome oxidase histochemistry, the tissue is either processed very rapidly after buffer perfusion to remove blood or in recently perfusion-fixed tissue (e.g., 10.1016/0165-0270(93)90122-8). Given: (1) the presumably long post-mortem interval between death and fixation - "it often takes days to dissect elephants"; (2) subsequent fixation of the brains in 4% paraformaldehyde for "several weeks"; (3) The intense cytochrome oxidase reactivity in the inferior olivary complex of the laboratory rat (Gonzalez-Lima, 1998, Cytochrome oxidase in neuronal metabolism and Alzheimer's diseases); and (4) The lack of any comparative images from other stained portions of the elephant brainstem; it is difficult to support the justification as forwarded by the authors. The histochemical staining observed is likely background reactivity from the use of diaminobenzidine in the staining protocol. Thus, this first justification is unsupported.

    Comment: The referee correctly notes the description of our cytochrome-oxidase reactivity staining was lacking. This is a serious mistake of ours for which we apologize very much. The referee then makes it sound as if we messed up our cytochrome-oxidase staining, which is not the case. All successful (n = 3; please see our technical comments in the recommendation section) cytochrome-oxidase stainings were done with elephants with short post-mortem times (≤ 2 days) to brain removal/cooling and only brief immersion fixation (≤ 1 day). Cytochrome-oxidase reactivity in elephant brains appears to be more sensitive to quenching by fixation than is the case for rodent brains. We think it is a good idea to include a cytochrome-oxidase staining overview picture because we understood from the referee’s comments that we need to compare our partitioning scheme of the brainstem with that of other authors. To this end, we add a cytochrome-oxidase staining overview picture (Author response image 3) along with an alternative interpretation from Maseko et al., 2013.

    Changes: 1) We added details on our cytochrome-oxidase reactivity staining protocol and the cytochrome-oxidase reactivity in the elephant brain in general recommendation.

    1. We provide a detailed discussion of the technicalities of cytochrome-oxidase staining below in the recommendation section, where the referee raised further criticisms.

    2. We include a cytochrome-oxidase staining overview picture (Author response image 2) along with an alternative interpretation from Maseko et al., 2013.

    Author response image 3.

    Cytochrome-oxidase staining overview along with the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme Left, coronal cytochrome-oxidase staining overview from African elephant cow Indra; the section is taken a few millimeters posterior to the facial nucleus. Brown is putatively neural cytochrome-reactivity, and white is the background. Black is myelin diffraction and (seen at higher resolution, when you zoom in) erythrocyte cytochrome-reactivity in blood vessels (see our Figure 1E-G); such blood vessel cytochrome-reactivity is seen, because we could not perfuse the animal. There appears to be a minimal outside-in-fixation artifact (i.e. a more whitish/non-brownish appearance of the section toward the borders of the brain). This artifact is not seen in sections from Indra that we processed earlier or in other elephant brains processed at shorter post-mortem/fixation delays (see our Figure 1C). Right, coronal partitioning scheme of Maseko et al. (2013) for the elephant brainstem at an approximately similar anterior-posterior level.

    The same structures can be recognized left and right. The section is taken at an anterior-posterior level, where we encounter the trigeminal nuclei in pretty much all mammals. Note that the neural cytochrome reactivity is very high, in what we refer to as the trigeminal-nuclei-trunk-module and what Maseko et al. refer to as inferior olive. Myelin stripes can be recognized here as white omissions.

    At the same time, the cytochrome-oxidase-reactivity is very low in what Maseko et al. refer to as trigeminal nuclei. The indistinct appearance and low cytochrome-oxidase-reactivity of the trigeminal nuclei in the scheme of Maseko et al. (2013) is unexpected because trigeminal nuclei stain intensely for cytochrome-oxidase-reactivity in most mammals and because the trigeminal nuclei represent the elephant’s most important body part, the trunk. Staining patterns of the trigeminal nuclei as identified by Maseko et al. (2013) are very different at more posterior levels; we will discuss this matter below.

    Justifications (2), (3), and (4) are sequelae from justification (1). In this sense, they do not count as justifications, but rather unsupported extensions.

    Comment: These are key points of our paper that the referee does not discuss.

    Changes: None.

    (4) and (5) These are interesting justifications, as the paper has clear internal contradictions, and (5) is a sequelae of (4). The reader is led to the concept that the myelin tracts divide the nuclei into sub-modules that match the folding of the skin on the elephant trunk. One would then readily presume that these myelin tracts are in the incoming sensory axons from the trigeminal nerve. However, the authors note that this is not the case: "Our observations on trunk module myelin stripes are at odds with this view of myelin. Specifically, myelin stripes show no tapering (which we would expect if axons divert off into the tissue). More than that, there is no correlation between myelin stripe thickness (which presumably correlates with axon numbers) and trigeminal module neuron numbers. Thus, there are numerous myelinated axons, where we observe few or no trigeminal neurons. These observations are incompatible with the idea that myelin stripes form an axonal 'supply' system or that their prime function is to connect neurons. What do myelin stripe axons do, if they do not connect neurons? We suggest that myelin stripes serve to separate rather than connect neurons." So, we are left with the observation that the myelin stripes do not pass afferent trigeminal sensory information from the "truly extraordinary" trunk skin somatic sensory system, and rather function as units that separate neurons - but to what end? It appears that the myelin stripes are more likely to be efferent axonal bundles leaving the nuclei (to form the olivocerebellar tract). This justification is unsupported.

    Comment: The referee cites some of our observations on myelin stripes, which we find unusual. We stand by the observations and comments. The referee does not discuss the most crucial finding we report on myelin stripes, namely that they correspond remarkably well to trunk folds.

    Changes: None.

    (6) The authors indicate that the location of these nuclei matches that of the trigeminal nuclei in other mammals. This is not supported in any way. In ALL other mammals in which the trigeminal nuclei of the brainstem have been reported they are found in the lateral aspect of the brainstem, bordered laterally by the spinal trigeminal tract. This is most readily seen and accessible in the Paxinos and Watson rat brain atlases. The authors indicate that the trigeminal nuclei are medial to the facial nerve nucleus, but in every other species, the trigeminal sensory nuclei are found lateral to the facial nerve nucleus. This is most salient when examining a close relative, the manatee (10.1002/ar.20573), where the location of the inferior olive and the trigeminal nuclei matches that described by Maseko et al (2013) for the African elephant. This justification is not supported.

    Comment: The referee notes that we incorrectly state that the position of the trigeminal nuclei matches that of other mammals. We think this criticism is justified.

    Changes: We prepared a comparison of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme of the elephant brainstem with our scheme of the elephant brainstem (see Author response table 1). Here we acknowledge the referee’s argument and we also changed the manuscript accordingly.

    (7) The dual to quadruple repetition of rostrocaudal modules within the putative trigeminal nucleus as identified by the authors relies on the fact that in the neurotypical mammal, there are several trigeminal sensory nuclei arranged in a column running from the pons to the cervical spinal cord, these include (nomenclature from Paxinos and Watson in roughly rostral to caudal order) the Pr5VL, Pr5DM, Sp5O, Sp5I, and Sp5C. However, these nuclei are all located far from the midline and lateral to the facial nerve nucleus, unlike what the authors describe in the elephants. These rostrocaudal modules are expanded upon in Figure 2, and it is apparent from what is shown that the authors are attributing other brainstem nuclei to the putative trigeminal nuclei to confirm their conclusion. For example, what they identify as the inferior olive in Figure 2D is likely the lateral reticular nucleus as identified by Maseko et al (2013). This justification is not supported.

    Comment: The referee again compares our findings to the scheme of Maseko et al. (2013) and rejects our conclusions on those grounds. We think such a comparison of our scheme is needed, indeed.

    Changes: We prepared a comparison of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme of the elephant brainstem with our scheme of the elephant brainstem (see Author response table 1).

    (8) In primates and related species, there is a distinct banded appearance of the inferior olive, but what has been termed the inferior olive in the elephant by other authors does not have this appearance, rather, and specifically, the largest nuclear mass in the region (termed the principal nucleus of the inferior olive by Maseko et al, 2013, but Pr5, the principal trigeminal nucleus in the current paper) overshadows the partial banded appearance of the remaining nuclei in the region (but also drawn by the authors of the current paper). Thus, what is at debate here is whether the principal nucleus of the inferior olive can take on a nuclear shape rather than evince a banded appearance. The authors of this paper use this variance as justification that this cluster of nuclei could not possibly be the inferior olive. Such a "semi-nuclear/banded" arrangement of the inferior olive is seen in, for example, giraffe (10.1016/j.jchemneu.2007.05.003), domestic dog, polar bear, and most specifically the manatee (a close relative of the elephant) (brainmuseum.org; 10.1002/ar.20573). This justification is not supported.

    Comment: We carefully looked at the brain sections referred to by the referee in the brainmuseum.org collection. We found contrary to the referee’s claims that dogs, polar bears, and manatees have a perfectly serrated (a cellular arrangement in curved bands) appearance of the inferior olive. Accordingly, we think the referee is not reporting the comparative evidence fairly and we wonder why this is the case.

    Changes: None.

    Thus, all the justifications forwarded by the authors are unsupported. Based on methodological concerns, prior comparative mammalian neuroanatomy, and prior studies in the elephant and closely related species, the authors fail to support their notion that what was previously termed the inferior olive in the elephant is actually the trigeminal sensory nuclei. Given this failure, the justifications provided above that are sequelae also fail. In this sense, the entire manuscript and all the sequelae are not supported.

    Comment: We disagree. To summarize:

    (1) Our description of the cytochrome oxidase staining lacked methodological detail, which we have now added; the cytochrome oxidase reactivity data are great and support our conclusions.

    (2)–(5)The referee does not really discuss our evidence on these points.

    (6) We were wrong and have now fixed this mistake.

    (7) The referee asks for a comparison to the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme (agreed, see Author response image 4 4 and Author response table 1).

    (8) The referee bends the comparative evidence against us.

    Changes: None.

    A comparison of the elephant brainstem partitioning schemes put forward by Maseko et al 2013 and by Reveyaz et al.

    To start with, we would like to express our admiration for the work of Maseko et al. (2013). These authors did pioneering work on obtaining high-quality histology samples from elephants. Moreover, they made a heroic neuroanatomical effort, in which they assigned 147 brain structures to putative anatomical entities. Most of their data appear to refer to staining in a single elephant and one coronal sectioning plane. The data quality and the illustration of results are excellent.

    We studied mainly two large nuclei in six (now 7) elephants in three (coronal, parasagittal, and horizontal) sectioning planes. The two nuclei in question are the two most distinct nuclei in the elephant brainstem, namely an anterior ventromedial nucleus (the trigeminal trunk module in our terminology; the inferior olive in the terminology of Maseko et al., 2013) and a more posterior lateral nucleus (the inferior olive in our terminology; the posterior part of the trigeminal nuclei in the terminology of Maseko et al., 2013).

    Author response image 4 gives an overview of the two partitioning schemes for inferior olive/trigeminal nuclei along with the rodent organization (see below).

    Author response image 4.

    Overview of the brainstem organization in rodents & elephants according to Maseko et. (2013) and Reveyaz et al. (this paper).

    The strength of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme is the excellent match of the position of elephant nuclei to the position of nuclei in the rodent (Author response image 4). We think this positional match reflects the fact that Maseko et al. (2013) mapped a rodent partitioning scheme on the elephant brainstem. To us, this is a perfectly reasonable mapping approach. As the referee correctly points out, the positional similarity of both elephant inferior olive and trigeminal nuclei to the rodent strongly argues in favor of the Maseko et al. (2013), because brainstem nuclei are positionally very conservative.

    Other features of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme are less favorable. The scheme marries two cyto-architectonically very distinct divisions (an anterior indistinct part) and a super-distinct serrated posterior part to be the trigeminal nuclei. We think merging entirely distinct subdivisions into one nucleus is a byproduct of mapping a rodent partitioning scheme on the elephant brainstem. Neither of the two subdivisions resemble the trigeminal nuclei of other mammals. The cytochrome oxidase staining patterns differ markedly across the anterior indistinct part (see our Author response image 4) and the posterior part of the trigeminal nuclei and do not match with the intense cytochrome oxidase reactivity of other mammalian trigeminal nuclei (Referee Figure 3). Our anti-peripherin staining indicates that there probably no climbing fibers, in what Maseko et al. think. is inferior olive; this is a potentially fatal problem for the hypothesis. The posterior part of Maseko et al. (2013) trigeminal nuclei has a distinct serrated appearance that is characteristic of the inferior olive in other mammals. Moreover, the inferior olive of Maseko et al. (2013) lacks the serrated appearance of the inferior olive seen in pretty much all mammals; this is a serious problem.

    The partitioning scheme of Reveyaz et al. comes with poor positional similarity but avoids the other problems of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme. Our explanation for the positionally deviating location of trigeminal nuclei is that the elephant grew one of the if not the largest trigeminal systems of all mammals. As a result, the trigeminal nuclei grew through the floor of the brainstem. We understand this is a post hoc just-so explanation, but at least it is an explanation.

    The scheme of Reveyaz et al. was derived in an entirely different way from the Maseko model. Specifically, we were convinced that the elephant trigeminal nuclei ought to be very special because of the gigantic trigeminal ganglia (Purkart et al., 2022). Cytochrome-oxidase staining revealed a large distinct nucleus with an elongated shape. Initially, we were freaked out by the position of the nucleus and the fact that it was referred to as inferior olive by other authors. When we found an inferior-olive-like nucleus at a nearby (although at an admittedly unusual) location, we were less worried. We then optimized the visualization of myelin stripes (brightfield imaging etc.) and were able to collect an entire elephant trunk along with the brain (African elephant cow Indra). When we made the one-to-one match of Indra’s trunk folds and myelin stripes (Figure 4) we were certain that we had identified the trunk module of the trigeminal nuclei. We already noted at the outset of our rebuttal that we now consider such certainty a fallacy of overconfidence. In light of the comments of Referee 2, we feel that a further discussion of our ideas is warranted. A strength of the Reveyaz model is that nuclei look like single anatomical entities. The trigeminal nuclei look like trigeminal nuclei of other mammals, the trunk module has a striking resemblance to the trunk and the inferior olive looks like the inferior olive of other mammals.

    We evaluated the fit of the two models in the form of a table (Author response table 1; below). Unsurprisingly, Author response table 1 aligns with our views of elephant brainstem partitioning.

    Author response table 1.

    Qualitative evaluation of elephant brainstem partitioning schemes

    Author response table 1 suggests two conclusions to us. (i) The Reveyaz et al. model has mainly favorable properties. The Maseko et al. (2013) model has mainly unfavorable properties. Hence, the Reveyaz et al. model is more likely to be true. (ii) The outcome is not black and white, i.e., both models have favorable and unfavorable properties. Accordingly, we overstated our case in our initial submission and toned down our claims in the revised manuscript.

    What the authors have not done is to trace the pathway of the large trigeminal nerve in the elephant brainstem, as was done by Maseko et al (2013), which clearly shows the internal pathways of this nerve, from the branch that leads to the fifth mesencephalic nucleus adjacent to the periventricular grey matter, through to the spinal trigeminal tract that extends from the pons to the spinal cord in a manner very similar to all other mammals. Nor have they shown how the supposed trigeminal information reaches the putative trigeminal nuclei in the ventromedial rostral medulla oblongata. These are but two examples of many specific lines of evidence that would be required to support their conclusions. Clearly, tract tracing methods, such as cholera toxin tracing of peripheral nerves cannot be done in elephants, thus the neuroanatomy must be done properly and with attention to detail to support the major changes indicated by the authors.

    Comment: The referee claims that Maseko et al. (2013) showed by ‘tract tracing’ that the structures they refer to trigeminal nuclei receive trigeminal input. This statement is at least slightly misleading. There is nothing of what amounts to proper ‘tract tracing’ in the Maseko et al. (2013) paper, i.e. tracing of tracts with post-mortem tracers. We tried proper post-mortem tracing but failed (no tracer transport) probably as a result of the limitations of our elephant material. What Maseko et al. (2013) actually did is look a bit for putative trigeminal fibers and where they might go. We also used this approach. In our hands, such ‘pseudo tract tracing’ works best in unstained material under bright field illumination, because myelin is very well visualized. In such material, we find: (i) massive fiber tracts descending dorsoventrally roughly from where both Maseko et al. 2013 and we think the trigeminal tract runs. (ii) These fiber tracts run dorsoventrally and approach, what we think is the trigeminal nuclei from lateral.

    Changes: Ad hoc tract tracing see above.

    So what are these "bumps" in the elephant brainstem?

    Four previous authors indicate that these bumps are the inferior olivary nuclear complex. Can this be supported?

    The inferior olivary nuclear complex acts "as a relay station between the spinal cord (n.b. trigeminal input does reach the spinal cord via the spinal trigeminal tract) and the cerebellum, integrating motor and sensory information to provide feedback and training to cerebellar neurons" (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542242/). The inferior olivary nuclear complex is located dorsal and medial to the pyramidal tracts (which were not labeled in the current study by the authors but are clearly present in Fig. 1C and 2A) in the ventromedial aspect of the rostral medulla oblongata. This is precisely where previous authors have identified the inferior olivary nuclear complex and what the current authors assign to their putative trigeminal nuclei. The neurons of the inferior olivary nuclei project, via the olivocerebellar tract to the cerebellum to terminate in the climbing fibres of the cerebellar cortex.

    Comment: We agree with the referee that in the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme the inferior olive is exactly where we expect it from pretty much all other mammals. Hence, this is a strong argument in favor of the Maseko et al. (2013) scheme and a strong argument against the partitioning scheme suggested by us.

    Changes: Please see our discussion above.

    Elephants have the largest (relative and absolute) cerebellum of all mammals (10.1002/ar.22425), this cerebellum contains 257 x109 neurons (10.3389/fnana.2014.00046; three times more than the entire human brain, 10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009). Each of these neurons appears to be more structurally complex than the homologous neurons in other mammals (10.1159/000345565; 10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3). In the African elephant, the neurons of the inferior olivary nuclear complex are described by Maseko et al (2013) as being both calbindin and calretinin immunoreactive. Climbing fibres in the cerebellar cortex of the African elephant are clearly calretinin immunopositive and also are likely to contain calbindin (10.1159/000345565). Given this, would it be surprising that the inferior olivary nuclear complex of the elephant is enlarged enough to create a very distinct bump in exactly the same place where these nuclei are identified in other mammals?

    Comment: We agree with the referee that it is possible and even expected from other mammals that there is an enlargement of the inferior olive in elephants. Hence, a priori one might expect the ventral brain stem bumps to the inferior olive, this is perfectly reasonable and is what was done by previous authors. The referee also refers to calbindin and calretinin antibody reactivity. Such antibody reactivity is indeed in line with the referee’s ideas and we considered these findings in our Referee Table 1. The problem is, however, that neither calbindin nor calretinin antibody reactivity are highly specific and indeed both nuclei in discussion (trigeminal nuclei and inferior olive) show such reactivity. Unlike the peripherin-antibody staining advanced by us, calbindin nor calretinin antibody reactivity cannot distinguish the two hypotheses debated.

    Changes: Please see our discussion above.

    What about the myelin stripes? These are most likely to be the origin of the olivocerebellar tract and probably only have a coincidental relationship with the trunk. Thus, given what we know, the inferior olivary nuclear complex as described in other studies, and the putative trigeminal nuclear complex as described in the current study, is the elephant inferior olivary nuclear complex. It is not what the authors believe it to be, and they do not provide any evidence that discounts the previous studies. The authors are quite simply put, wrong. All the speculations that flow from this major neuroanatomical error are therefore science fiction rather than useful additions to the scientific literature.

    Comment: It is unlikely that the myelin stripes are the origin of the olivocerebellar tract as suggested by the referee. Specifically, the lack of peripherin-reactivity indicates that these fibers are not climbing fibers (Referee Figure 1). In general, we feel the referee does not want to discuss the myelin stripes and obviously thinks we made up the strange correspondence of myelin stripes and trunk folds.

    Changes: Please see our discussion above.

    What do the authors actually have?

    The authors have interesting data, based on their Golgi staining and analysis, of the inferior olivary nuclear complex in the elephant.

    Comment: The referee reiterates their views.

    Changes: None.

    Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

    Summary:

    The study claims to investigate trunk representations in elephant trigeminal nuclei located in the brainstem. The researchers identified large protrusions visible from the ventral surface of the brainstem, which they examined using a range of histological methods. However, this ventral location is usually where the inferior olivary complex is found, which challenges the author's assertions about the nucleus under analysis. They find that this brainstem nucleus of elephants contains repeating modules, with a focus on the anterior and largest unit which they define as the putative nucleus principalis trunk module of the trigeminal. The nucleus exhibits low neuron density, with glia outnumbering neurons significantly. The study also utilizes synchrotron X-ray phase contrast tomography to suggest that myelin-stripe-axons traverse this module. The analysis maps myelin-rich stripes in several specimens and concludes that based on their number and patterning they likely correspond with trunk folds; however, this conclusion is not well supported if the nucleus has been misidentified.

    Comment: The referee gives a concise summary of our findings. The referee acknowledges the depth of our analysis and also notes our cellular results. The referee – in line with the comments of Referee 2 – also points out that a misidentification of the nucleus under study is potentially fatal for our analysis. We thank the referee for this fair assessment.

    Changes: We feel that we need to alert the reader more broadly to the misidentification concern. We think the critical comments of Referee 2, which will be published along with our manuscript, will go a long way in doing so. We think the eLife publishing format is fantastic in this regard. We will also include pointers to these concerns in the revised manuscript.

    Strengths:

    The strength of this research lies in its comprehensive use of various anatomical methods, including Nissl staining, myelin staining, Golgi staining, cytochrome oxidase labeling, and synchrotron X-ray phase contrast tomography. The inclusion of quantitative data on cell numbers and sizes, dendritic orientation and morphology, and blood vessel density across the nucleus adds a quantitative dimension. Furthermore, the research is commendable for its high-quality and abundant images and figures, effectively illustrating the anatomy under investigation.

    Comment: Again, a very fair and balanced set of comments. We are thankful for these comments.

    Changes: None.

    Weaknesses:

    While the research provides potentially valuable insights if revised to focus on the structure that appears to be the inferior olivary nucleus, there are certain additional weaknesses that warrant further consideration. First, the suggestion that myelin stripes solely serve to separate sensory or motor modules rather than functioning as an "axonal supply system" lacks substantial support due to the absence of information about the neuronal origins and the termination targets of the axons. Postmortem fixed brain tissue limits the ability to trace full axon projections. While the study acknowledges these limitations, it is important to exercise caution in drawing conclusions about the precise role of myelin stripes without a more comprehensive understanding of their neural connections.

    Comment: The referee points out a significant weakness of our study, namely our limited understanding of the origin and targets of the axons constituting the myelin stripes. We are very much aware of this problem and this is also why we directed high-powered methodology like synchrotron X-ray tomograms to elucidate the structure of myelin stripes. Such analysis led to advances, i.e., we now think, what looks like stripes are bundles and we understand the constituting axons tend to transverse the module. Such advances are insufficient, however, to provide a clear picture of myelin stripe connectivity.

    Changes: We think solving the problems raised by the referee will require long-term methodological advances and hence we will not be able to solve these problems in the current revision. Our long-term plans for confronting these issues are the following: (i) Improving our understanding of long-range connectivity by post-mortem tracing and MR-based techniques such as Diffusion-Tensor-Imaging. (ii) Improving our understanding of mid and short-range connectivity by applying even larger synchrotron X-ray tomograms and possible serial EM.

    Second, the quantification presented in the study lacks comparison to other species or other relevant variables within the elephant specimens (i.e., whole brain or brainstem volume). The absence of comparative data for different species limits the ability to fully evaluate the significance of the findings. Comparative analyses could provide a broader context for understanding whether the observed features are unique to elephants or more common across species. This limitation in comparative data hinders a more comprehensive assessment of the implications of the research within the broader field of neuroanatomy. Furthermore, the quantitative comparisons between African and Asian elephant specimens should include some measure of overall brain size as a covariate in the analyses. Addressing these weaknesses would enable a richer interpretation of the study's findings.

    Comment: The referee suggests another series of topics, which include the analysis of brain parts volumes or overall brain size. We agree these are important issues, but we also think such questions are beyond the scope of our study.

    Changes: We hope to publish comparative data on elephant brain size and shape later this year.

  2. eLife assessment

    This potentially valuable study uses classic neuroanatomical techniques and synchrotron X-ray tomography to investigate the mapping of the trunk within the brainstem nuclei of the elephant brain. Given its unique specializations, understanding the somatosensory projections from the elephant trunk would be of general interest to evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and animal behavior scientists. However, the anatomical analysis is inadequate to support the authors' conclusion that they have identified the elephant trigeminal sensory nuclei rather than a different brain region, specifically the inferior olive.

  3. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    Summary:
    This fundamental study provides compelling neuroanatomical evidence underscoring the sensory function of the trunk in African and Asian elephants. Whereas myelinated tracts are classically appreciated as mediating neuronal connections, the authors speculate that myelinated bundles provide functional separation of trunk folds and display elaboration related to the "finger" projections. The authors avail themselves of many classical neuroanatomical techniques (including cytochrome oxidase stains, Golgi stains, and myelin stains) along with modern synchrotron X-ray tomography. This work will be of interest to evolutionary neurobiologists, comparative neuroscientists, and the general public, with its fascinating exploration of the brainstem of an icon sensory specialist.

    Strengths:
    - The authors made excellent use of the precious sample materials from 9 captive elephants.
    - The authors adopt a battery of neuroanatomical techniques to comprehensively characterize the structure of the trigeminal subnuclei and properly re-examine the "inferior olive".
    - Based on their exceptional histological preparation, the authors reveal broadly segregated patterns of metabolic activity, similar to the classical "barrel" organization related to rodent whiskers.

    Weaknesses:
    - As the authors acknowledge, somewhat limited functional description can be provided using histological analysis (compared to more invasive techniques).
    - The correlation between myelinated stripes and trunk fold patterns is intriguing, and Figure 4 presents this idea beautifully. I wonder - is the number of stripes consistent with the number of trunk folds? Does this hold for both species?

  4. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    The authors describe what they assert to be a very unusual trigeminal nuclear complex in the brainstem of elephants, and based on this, follow with many speculations about how the trigeminal nuclear complex, as identified by them, might be organized in terms of the sensory capacity of the elephant trunk.

    The identification of the trigeminal nuclear complex/inferior olivary nuclear complex in the elephant brainstem is the central pillar of this manuscript from which everything else follows, and if this is incorrect, then the entire manuscript fails, and all the associated speculations become completely unsupported.

    The authors note that what they identify as the trigeminal nuclear complex has been identified as the inferior olivary nuclear complex by other authors, citing Shoshani et al. (2006; 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2006.03.016) and Maseko et al (2013; 10.1159/000352004), but fail to cite either Verhaart and Kramer (1958; PMID 13841799) or Verhaart (1962; 10.1515/9783112519882-001). These four studies are in agreement, but the current study differs.

    Let's assume for the moment that the four previous studies are all incorrect and the current study is correct. This would mean that the entire architecture and organization of the elephant brainstem is significantly rearranged in comparison to ALL other mammals, including humans, previously studied (e.g. Kappers et al. 1965, The Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System of Vertebrates, Including Man, Volume 1 pp. 668-695) and the closely related manatee (10.1002/ar.20573). This rearrangement necessitates that the trigeminal nuclei would have had to "migrate" and shorten rostrocaudally, specifically and only, from the lateral aspect of the brainstem where these nuclei extend from the pons through to the cervical spinal cord (e.g. the Paxinos and Watson rat brain atlases), the to the spatially restricted ventromedial region of specifically and only the rostral medulla oblongata. According to the current paper, the inferior olivary complex of the elephant is very small and located lateral to their trigeminal nuclear complex, and the region from where the trigeminal nuclei are located by others appears to be just "lateral nuclei" with no suggestion of what might be there instead.

    Such an extraordinary rearrangement of brainstem nuclei would require a major transformation in the manner in which the mutations, patterning, and expression of genes and associated molecules during development occur. Such a major change is likely to lead to lethal phenotypes, making such a transformation extremely unlikely. Variations in mammalian brainstem anatomy are most commonly associated with quantitative changes rather than qualitative changes (10.1016/B978-0-12-804042-3.00045-2).

    The impetus for the identification of the unusual brainstem trigeminal nuclei in the current study rests upon a previous study from the same laboratory (10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.051) that estimated that the number of axons contained in the infraorbital branch of the trigeminal nerve that innervate the sensory surfaces of the trunk is approximately 400 000. Is this number unusual? In a much smaller mammal with a highly specialized trigeminal system, the platypus, the number of axons innervating the sensory surface of the platypus bill skin comes to 1 344 000 (10.1159/000113185). Yet, there is no complex rearrangement of the brainstem trigeminal nuclei in the brain of the developing or adult platypus (Ashwell, 2013, Neurobiology of Monotremes), despite the brainstem trigeminal nuclei being very large in the platypus (10.1159/000067195). Even in other large-brained mammals, such as large whales that do not have a trunk, the number of axons in the trigeminal nerve ranges between 400,000 and 500,000 (10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_988-1). The lack of comparative support for the argument forwarded in the previous and current study from this laboratory, and that the comparative data indicates that the brainstem nuclei do not change in the manner suggested in the elephant, argues against the identification of the trigeminal nuclei as outlined in the current study. Moreover, the comparative studies undermine the prior claim of the authors, informing the current study, that "the elephant trigeminal ganglion ... point to a high degree of tactile specialization in elephants" (10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.051). While clearly, the elephant has tactile sensitivity in the trunk, it is questionable as to whether what has been observed in elephants is indeed "truly extraordinary".

    But let's look more specifically at the justification outlined in the current study to support their identification of the unusually located trigeminal sensory nuclei of the brainstem.

    (1) Intense cytochrome oxidase reactivity.
    (2) Large size of the putative trunk module.
    (3) Elongation of the putative trunk module.
    (4) The arrangement of these putative modules corresponds to elephant head anatomy.
    (5) Myelin stripes within the putative trunk module that apparently match trunk folds.
    (6) Location apparently matches other mammals.
    (7) Repetitive modular organization apparently similar to other mammals.
    (8) The inferior olive described by other authors lacks the lamellated appearance of this structure in other mammals.

    Let's examine these justifications more closely.

    (1) Cytochrome oxidase histochemistry is typically used as an indicative marker of neuronal energy metabolism. The authors indicate, based on the "truly extraordinary" somatosensory capacities of the elephant trunk, that any nuclei processing this tactile information should be highly metabolically active, and thus should react intensely when stained for cytochrome oxidase. We are told in the methods section that the protocols used are described by Purkart et al (2022) and Kaufmann et al (2022). In neither of these cited papers is there any description, nor mention, of the cytochrome oxidase histochemistry methodology, thus we have no idea of how this histochemical staining was done. To obtain the best results for cytochrome oxidase histochemistry, the tissue is either processed very rapidly after buffer perfusion to remove blood or in recently perfusion-fixed tissue (e.g., 10.1016/0165-0270(93)90122-8). Given: (1) the presumably long post-mortem interval between death and fixation - "it often takes days to dissect elephants"; (2) subsequent fixation of the brains in 4% paraformaldehyde for "several weeks"; (3) The intense cytochrome oxidase reactivity in the inferior olivary complex of the laboratory rat (Gonzalez-Lima, 1998, Cytochrome oxidase in neuronal metabolism and Alzheimer's diseases); and (4) The lack of any comparative images from other stained portions of the elephant brainstem; it is difficult to support the justification as forwarded by the authors. The histochemical staining observed is likely background reactivity from the use of diaminobenzidine in the staining protocol. Thus, this first justification is unsupported.

    Justifications (2), (3), and (4) are sequelae from justification (1). In this sense, they do not count as justifications, but rather unsupported extensions.

    (4) and (5) These are interesting justifications, as the paper has clear internal contradictions, and (5) is a sequelae of (4). The reader is led to the concept that the myelin tracts divide the nuclei into sub-modules that match the folding of the skin on the elephant trunk. One would then readily presume that these myelin tracts are in the incoming sensory axons from the trigeminal nerve. However, the authors note that this is not the case: "Our observations on trunk module myelin stripes are at odds with this view of myelin. Specifically, myelin stripes show no tapering (which we would expect if axons divert off into the tissue). More than that, there is no correlation between myelin stripe thickness (which presumably correlates with axon numbers) and trigeminal module neuron numbers. Thus, there are numerous myelinated axons, where we observe few or no trigeminal neurons. These observations are incompatible with the idea that myelin stripes form an axonal 'supply' system or that their prime function is to connect neurons. What do myelin stripe axons do, if they do not connect neurons? We suggest that myelin stripes serve to separate rather than connect neurons." So, we are left with the observation that the myelin stripes do not pass afferent trigeminal sensory information from the "truly extraordinary" trunk skin somatic sensory system, and rather function as units that separate neurons - but to what end? It appears that the myelin stripes are more likely to be efferent axonal bundles leaving the nuclei (to form the olivocerebellar tract). This justification is unsupported.

    (6) The authors indicate that the location of these nuclei matches that of the trigeminal nuclei in other mammals. This is not supported in any way. In ALL other mammals in which the trigeminal nuclei of the brainstem have been reported they are found in the lateral aspect of the brainstem, bordered laterally by the spinal trigeminal tract. This is most readily seen and accessible in the Paxinos and Watson rat brain atlases. The authors indicate that the trigeminal nuclei are medial to the facial nerve nucleus, but in every other species, the trigeminal sensory nuclei are found lateral to the facial nerve nucleus. This is most salient when examining a close relative, the manatee (10.1002/ar.20573), where the location of the inferior olive and the trigeminal nuclei matches that described by Maseko et al (2013) for the African elephant. This justification is not supported.

    (7) The dual to quadruple repetition of rostrocaudal modules within the putative trigeminal nucleus as identified by the authors relies on the fact that in the neurotypical mammal, there are several trigeminal sensory nuclei arranged in a column running from the pons to the cervical spinal cord, these include (nomenclature from Paxinos and Watson in roughly rostral to caudal order) the Pr5VL, Pr5DM, Sp5O, Sp5I, and Sp5C. However, these nuclei are all located far from the midline and lateral to the facial nerve nucleus, unlike what the authors describe in the elephants. These rostrocaudal modules are expanded upon in Figure 2, and it is apparent from what is shown that the authors are attributing other brainstem nuclei to the putative trigeminal nuclei to confirm their conclusion. For example, what they identify as the inferior olive in Figure 2D is likely the lateral reticular nucleus as identified by Maseko et al (2013). This justification is not supported.

    (8) In primates and related species, there is a distinct banded appearance of the inferior olive, but what has been termed the inferior olive in the elephant by other authors does not have this appearance, rather, and specifically, the largest nuclear mass in the region (termed the principal nucleus of the inferior olive by Maseko et al, 2013, but Pr5, the principal trigeminal nucleus in the current paper) overshadows the partial banded appearance of the remaining nuclei in the region (but also drawn by the authors of the current paper). Thus, what is at debate here is whether the principal nucleus of the inferior olive can take on a nuclear shape rather than evince a banded appearance. The authors of this paper use this variance as justification that this cluster of nuclei could not possibly be the inferior olive. Such a "semi-nuclear/banded" arrangement of the inferior olive is seen in, for example, giraffe (10.1016/j.jchemneu.2007.05.003), domestic dog, polar bear, and most specifically the manatee (a close relative of the elephant) (brainmuseum.org; 10.1002/ar.20573). This justification is not supported.

    Thus, all the justifications forwarded by the authors are unsupported. Based on methodological concerns, prior comparative mammalian neuroanatomy, and prior studies in the elephant and closely related species, the authors fail to support their notion that what was previously termed the inferior olive in the elephant is actually the trigeminal sensory nuclei. Given this failure, the justifications provided above that are sequelae also fail. In this sense, the entire manuscript and all the sequelae are not supported.

    What the authors have not done is to trace the pathway of the large trigeminal nerve in the elephant brainstem, as was done by Maseko et al (2013), which clearly shows the internal pathways of this nerve, from the branch that leads to the fifth mesencephalic nucleus adjacent to the periventricular grey matter, through to the spinal trigeminal tract that extends from the pons to the spinal cord in a manner very similar to all other mammals. Nor have they shown how the supposed trigeminal information reaches the putative trigeminal nuclei in the ventromedial rostral medulla oblongata. These are but two examples of many specific lines of evidence that would be required to support their conclusions. Clearly, tract tracing methods, such as cholera toxin tracing of peripheral nerves cannot be done in elephants, thus the neuroanatomy must be done properly and with attention to detail to support the major changes indicated by the authors.

    So what are these "bumps" in the elephant brainstem?

    Four previous authors indicate that these bumps are the inferior olivary nuclear complex. Can this be supported?

    The inferior olivary nuclear complex acts "as a relay station between the spinal cord (n.b. trigeminal input does reach the spinal cord via the spinal trigeminal tract) and the cerebellum, integrating motor and sensory information to provide feedback and training to cerebellar neurons" (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542242/). The inferior olivary nuclear complex is located dorsal and medial to the pyramidal tracts (which were not labelled in the current study by the authors but are clearly present in Fig. 1C and 2A) in the ventromedial aspect of the rostral medulla oblongata. This is precisely where previous authors have identified the inferior olivary nuclear complex and what the current authors assign to their putative trigeminal nuclei. The neurons of the inferior olivary nuclei project, via the olivocerebellar tract to the cerebellum to terminate in the climbing fibres of the cerebellar cortex.

    Elephants have the largest (relative and absolute) cerebellum of all mammals (10.1002/ar.22425), this cerebellum contains 257 x109 neurons (10.3389/fnana.2014.00046; three times more than the entire human brain, 10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009). Each of these neurons appears to be more structurally complex than the homologous neurons in other mammals (10.1159/000345565; 10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3). In the African elephant, the neurons of the inferior olivary nuclear complex are described by Maseko et al (2013) as being both calbindin and calretinin immunoreactive. Climbing fibres in the cerebellar cortex of the African elephant are clearly calretinin immunopositive and also are likely to contain calbindin (10.1159/000345565). Given this, would it be surprising that the inferior olivary nuclear complex of the elephant is enlarged enough to create a very distinct bump in exactly the same place where these nuclei are identified in other mammals?

    What about the myelin stripes? These are most likely to be the origin of the olivocerebellar tract and probably only have a coincidental relationship with the trunk. Thus, given what we know, the inferior olivary nuclear complex as described in other studies, and the putative trigeminal nuclear complex as described in the current study, is the elephant inferior olivary nuclear complex. It is not what the authors believe it to be, and they do not provide any evidence that discounts the previous studies. The authors are quite simply put, wrong. All the speculations that flow from this major neuroanatomical error are therefore science fiction rather than useful additions to the scientific literature.

    What do the authors actually have?
    The authors have interesting data, based on their Golgi staining and analysis, of the inferior olivary nuclear complex in the elephant.

  5. Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

    Summary:
    The study claims to investigate trunk representations in elephant trigeminal nuclei located in the brainstem. The researchers identified large protrusions visible from the ventral surface of the brainstem, which they examined using a range of histological methods. However, this ventral location is usually where the inferior olivary complex is found, which challenges the author's assertions about the nucleus under analysis. They find that this brainstem nucleus of elephants contains repeating modules, with a focus on the anterior and largest unit which they define as the putative nucleus principalis trunk module of the trigeminal. The nucleus exhibits low neuron density, with glia outnumbering neurons significantly. The study also utilizes synchrotron X-ray phase contrast tomography to suggest that myelin-stripe-axons traverse this module. The analysis maps myelin-rich stripes in several specimens and concludes that based on their number and patterning they likely correspond with trunk folds; however, this conclusion is not well supported if the nucleus has been misidentified.

    Strengths:
    The strength of this research lies in its comprehensive use of various anatomical methods, including Nissl staining, myelin staining, Golgi staining, cytochrome oxidase labeling, and synchrotron X-ray phase contrast tomography. The inclusion of quantitative data on cell numbers and sizes, dendritic orientation and morphology, and blood vessel density across the nucleus adds a quantitative dimension. Furthermore, the research is commendable for its high-quality and abundant images and figures, effectively illustrating the anatomy under investigation.

    Weaknesses:
    While the research provides potentially valuable insights if revised to focus on the structure that appears to be the inferior olivary nucleus, there are certain additional weaknesses that warrant further consideration. First, the suggestion that myelin stripes solely serve to separate sensory or motor modules rather than functioning as an "axonal supply system" lacks substantial support due to the absence of information about the neuronal origins and the termination targets of the axons. Postmortem fixed brain tissue limits the ability to trace full axon projections. While the study acknowledges these limitations, it is important to exercise caution in drawing conclusions about the precise role of myelin stripes without a more comprehensive understanding of their neural connections.

    Second, the quantification presented in the study lacks comparison to other species or other relevant variables within the elephant specimens (i.e., whole brain or brainstem volume). The absence of comparative data for different species limits the ability to fully evaluate the significance of the findings. Comparative analyses could provide a broader context for understanding whether the observed features are unique to elephants or more common across species. This limitation in comparative data hinders a more comprehensive assessment of the implications of the research within the broader field of neuroanatomy. Furthermore, the quantitative comparisons between African and Asian elephant specimens should include some measure of overall brain size as a covariate in the analyses. Addressing these weaknesses would enable a richer interpretation of the study's findings.