Degenerate hearing and sound localization in naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber), with an overview of central auditory structures

Authors

  • Rickye S. Heffner,

    Corresponding author
    1. Laboratory of Comparative Hearing, Department of Psychology, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606
    • Department of Psychology, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH 43606
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  • Henry E. Heffner

    1. Laboratory of Comparative Hearing, Department of Psychology, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606
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Abstract

Behavioral tests of absolute sensitivity and sound localization in African naked mole rats show that, despite their communal social structure and large vocal repertoire, their hearing has degenerated much like that of other subterranean species. First, their ability to detect sound is limited, with their maximum sensitivity being only 35 dB (occurring at 4 kHz). Second, their high-frequency hearing is severely limited, with their hearing range (at 60 dB sound pressure level [SPL]) extending from 65 Hz to only 12.8 kHz. Third, determination of the effect of duration on noise thresholds indicates that, compared with other animals, mole rats require a sound to be present for a much longer duration before reaching asymptotic threshold. Finally, they are unable consistently to localize sounds shorter than 400 ms and cannot accurately localize sounds of longer duration, raising the possibility that they are unable to use binaural locus cues. Thus, it seems that the essentially one-dimensional burrow system of a subterranean habitat produces severe changes in hearing comparable to the changes in vision that result from the absence of light. To explore the relation between vision and sound-localization acuity, retinal ganglion cell densities were determined. The results indicate that naked mole rats have a broad area of best (albeit poor) vision, with maximum acuity estimated at 44 cycles/degree. That mammals with wide fields of best vision have poorer sound-localization acuity than those with narrower fields is consistent with the thesis that a major function of sound localization is to direct the gaze to the source of a sound. However, the fact that subterranean mammals have little use for vision in a lightless environment suggests that they represent an extreme case in this relationship and may explain the fact that, unlike surface-dwelling mammals, they have virtually lost the ability to localize brief sounds. Finally, despite their very limited auditory abilities, the major brainstem auditory nuclei, although relatively small, appear to be present. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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