Parallel evolution of semicircular canal form and sensitivity in subterranean mammals.


The vertebrate vestibular system is crucial for balance and navigation, and the evolution of its form and function in relation to species' lifestyle and mode of locomotion has been the focus of considerable recent study. Most research, however, has concentrated on aboveground mammals, with much less published on subterranean fauna. Here, we explored variation in anatomy and sensitivity of the semicircular canals among 91 mammal species, including both subterranean and non-subterranean representatives. Quantitative phylogenetically informed analyses showed significant widening of the canals relative to radius of curvature in subterranean species. A relative canal width above 0.166 indicates with 95% certainty that a species is subterranean. Fluid-structure interaction modelling predicted that canal widening leads to a substantial increase in canal sensitivity; a reasonably good estimation of the absolute sensitivity is possible based on the absolute internal canal width alone. In addition, phylogenetic comparative modelling and functional landscape exploration revealed repeated independent evolution of increased relative canal width and anterior canal sensitivity associated with the transition to a subterranean lifestyle, providing evidence of parallel adaptation. Our results suggest that living in dark, subterranean tunnels requires good balance and/or navigation skills which may be facilitated by more sensitive semicircular canals.