Earless toads sense low frequencies but miss the high notes

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Sensory losses or reductions are frequently attributed to relaxed selection. However, anuran species have lost tympanic middle ears many times, despite anurans' use of acoustic communication and the benefit of middle ears for hearing airborne sound. Here we determine whether pre-existing alternative sensory pathways enable anurans lacking tympanic middle ears (termed earless anurans) to hear airborne sound as well as eared species or to better sense vibrations in the environment. We used auditory brainstem recordings to compare hearing and vibrational sensitivity among 10 species (six eared, four earless) within the Neotropical true toad family (Bufonidae). We found that species lacking middle ears are less sensitive to high-frequency sounds, however, low-frequency hearing and vibrational sensitivity are equivalent between eared and earless species. Furthermore, extratympanic hearing sensitivity varies among earless species, highlighting potential species differences in extratympanic hearing mechanisms. We argue that ancestral bufonids may have sufficient extratympanic hearing and vibrational sensitivity such that earless lineages tolerated the loss of high frequency hearing sensitivity by adopting species-specific behavioural strategies to detect conspecifics, predators and prey.

JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1864
Publication statusPublished - 2017