Internally coupled ears in living mammals.


It is generally held that the right and left middle ears of mammals are acoustically isolated from each other, such that mammals must rely on neural computation to derive sound localisation cues. There are, however, some unusual species in which the middle ear cavities intercommunicate, in which case each ear might be able to act as a pressure-difference receiver. This could improve sound localisation at lower frequencies. The platypus Ornithorhynchus is apparently unique among mammals in that its tympanic cavities are widely open to the pharynx, a morphology resembling that of some non-mammalian tetrapods. The right and left middle ear cavities of certain talpid and golden moles are connected through air passages within the basicranium; one experimental study on Talpa has shown that the middle ears are indeed acoustically coupled by these means. Having a basisphenoid component to the middle ear cavity walls could be an important prerequisite for the development of this form of interaural communication. Little is known about the hearing abilities of platypus, talpid and golden moles, but their audition may well be limited to relatively low frequencies. If so, these mammals could, in principle, benefit from the sound localisation cues available to them through internally coupled ears. Whether or not they actually do remains to be established experimentally.