Structure and function of the mammalian middle ear. II: Inferring function from structure.


Anatomists and zoologists who study middle ear morphology are often interested to know what the structure of an ear can reveal about the auditory acuity and hearing range of the animal in question. This paper represents an introduction to middle ear function targetted towards biological scientists with little experience in the field of auditory acoustics. Simple models of impedance matching are first described, based on the familiar concepts of the area and lever ratios of the middle ear. However, using the Mongolian gerbil Meriones unguiculatus as a test case, it is shown that the predictions made by such 'ideal transformer' models are generally not consistent with measurements derived from recent experimental studies. Electrical analogue models represent a better way to understand some of the complex, frequency-dependent responses of the middle ear: these have been used to model the effects of middle ear subcavities, and the possible function of the auditory ossicles as a transmission line. The concepts behind such models are explained here, again aimed at those with little background knowledge. Functional inferences based on middle ear anatomy are more likely to be valid at low frequencies. Acoustic impedance at low frequencies is dominated by compliance; expanded middle ear cavities, found in small desert mammals including gerbils, jerboas and the sengi Macroscelides, are expected to improve low-frequency sound transmission, as long as the ossicular system is not too stiff.