Saturday, 7 February 2015

Lungfish, salamanders reveal how hearing evolved

Provided by Christian Bech Christensen, Aarhus University

Lungfish and salamanders can hear, despite not having an outer ear or tympanic middle ear. These early terrestrial vertebrates were probably also able to hear 300 million years ago, as shown in a new study by Danish researchers.

Lungfish and salamander ears are good models for different stages of ear development in these early terrestrial vertebrates. Two new studies published in the renowned journals Proceedings of the Royal Society B and The Journal of Experimental Biology show that lungfish and salamanders can hear, despite not having an outer ear or tympanic middle ear. The study therefore indicates that the early terrestrial vertebrates were also able to hear prior to developing the tympanic middle ear. The research findings thus provide more knowledge about the development of hearing 250-350 million years ago.

The physical properties of air and tissue are very different, which means in theory that up to 99.9% of sound energy is reflected when sound waves reach animals through the air. In humans and many other terrestrial vertebrates, the ear can be divided into three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The outer ear catches sound waves and directs them into the auditory canal. In the middle ear, pressure oscillations in the air are transferred via the tympanic membrane (eardrum) and one or three small bones (ossicles) to fluid movements in the inner ear, where the conversion of sound waves to nerve signals takes place. The tympanic middle ear improves the transfer of sound energy from the surroundings to the sensory cells in the inner ear by up to 1,000 times, and is therefore very important for hearing in terrestrial vertebrates. This is reflected in the fact that different configurations are found in the vast majority of present-day terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. However, available palaeontological data indicate that the tympanic middle ear most likely evolved in the Triassic period, approximately 100 million years after the transition of the vertebrates from an aquatic to a terrestrial habitat during the Early Carboniferous. The vertebrates could therefore have been deaf for the first 100 million years on land.

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