Into the dark : patterns of middle ear adaptations in subterranean eulipotyphlan mammals

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Original languageEnglish
Article number170608
Journal / PublicationRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes



Evolution of the middle ear ossicles was a key innovation for mammals, enhancing the transmission of airborne sound. Radiation into various habitats from a terrestrial environment resulted in diversification of the auditory mechanisms among mammals. However, due to the paucity of phylogenetically controlled investigations, how middle ear traits have diversified with functional specialization remains unclear. In order to identify the respective patterns for various lifestyles and to gain insights into fossil forms, we employed a high-resolution tomography technique and compared the middle ear morphology of eulipotyphlan species (moles, shrews and hedgehogs), a group that has radiated into various environments, such as terrestrial, aquatic and subterranean habitats. Three-dimensional geometric morphometric analysis was conducted within a phylogenetically controlled framework. Quantitative shapes were found to strongly reflect the degree of subterranean lifestyle and weakly involve phylogeny. Our analyses demonstrate that subterranean adaptation should include a relatively shorter anterior process of the malleus, an enlarged incus, an enlarged stapes footplate and a reduction of the orbicular apophysis. These traits arguably allow improving low-frequency sound transmission at low frequencies and inhibiting the low-frequency noise which disturbs the subterranean animals in hearing airborne sounds.

Research Area(s)

  • Fossoriality, Geometric morphometrics, Impedance matching, Low-frequency sound, Moles

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