Auditory systems of Heteromyidae: Functional morphology and evolution of the middle ear



Middle ears (515) from 26 species of the rodent family Heteromyidae — genera Dipodomys, Microdipodops, Perognathus, and Liomys —were studied both grossly and histologically, for qualitative and quantitative comparisons. Middle ear modifications characteristic of each genus are qualitatively described. Quantitative comparisons are made among the 26 species in the study. Some correlations between middle ear size and other measurements are discussed.

The middle ear is an acoustical transformer that for best efficiency must match the impedance of the cochlea to the impedance of the air in the external auditory meatus. It accomplishes this by a pressure increase and a velocity decrease through the combined effects of the lever and areal ratios; however, because the important consideration is a matching of two impedances rather than an absolute pressure increase, the pressure transformer ratio is a less informative measure of the middle ear's efficiency than is the impedance transform ratio. The impedance transformer mechanism is explained (from a morphological point of view), and equations are presented. Dipodomys, Microdipodops, and Perognathus have a theoretical transmission (at the resonant frequency) of 94–100% of the incident acoustical energy; Liomys, 78–80%. The areal ratio of stapes footplate to 2/3 tympanic membrane is remarkably constant among the species, varying only from 0.04 to 0.07: in Dipodomys and Microdipodops this small ratio is due to the very large tympanic membrane; in Perognathus and Liomys it is due to the extremely small stapes footplate. The lever ratio of incus to malleus varies from 0.28 to 0.33 in Dipodomys and Microdipodops, from 0.37 to 0.46 in Perognathus, and from 0.55 to 0.60 in Liomys. In addition, the middle ear volumes and the morphology of tympanic membrane, ossicles, ligaments, and muscles, all combine to minimize both mass and stiffness. All these data suggest middle ear mechanisms which are very efficient over a broad frequency range.

The middle ear modifications found in heteromyids are adaptive in predator avoidance, especially in areas of little natural cover; nevertheless, contrary to expectations, there is no firm relationship between habitat and the extent of these modifications in the 26 species. However, environment did apparently play an important role in the evolution of the family, and this is discussed.