Scaling of ear morphology across 127 bird species and its implications for hearing performance

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Abstract

The dimensions of auditory structures among animals of varying body size can have implications for hearing performance. Larger animals often have a hearing range focused on lower frequencies than smaller animals, which may be explained by several anatomical mechanisms in the ear and their scaling relationships. While the effect of size on ear morphology and hearing performance has been explored in some mammals, anurans and lizards, much less is known about the scaling relationships for the single-ossicle, internally-coupled ears of birds. Using micro- and nano-CT scans of the tympanic middle and inner ears of 127 ecologically and phylogenetically diverse bird species, spanning more than 400-fold in head mass (2.3 to 950 g), we undertook phylogenetically-informed scaling analyses to test whether 12 morphological traits, of functional importance to hearing, maintain their relative proportions with increasing head mass. We then extended our analysis by regressing these morphological traits with measures of hearing sensitivity and range to better understand morphological underpinnings of hearing performance. We find that most auditory structures scale together in equal proportions, whereas columella length increases disproportionately. We also find that the size of several auditory structures is associated with increased hearing sensitivity and frequency hearing limits, while head mass did not explain these measures. Although both birds and mammals demonstrate proportional scaling between auditory structures, the consequences for hearing in each group may diverge due to unique morphological predictors of auditory performance.

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Zeyl, J. N., Snelling, E. P., Joo, R., & Clusella-Trullas, S. (2023). Scaling of ear morphology across 127 bird species and its implications for hearing performance. Hearing Research, 428. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heares.2022.108679

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