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Keywords:

  • Mammals;
  • evolution;
  • middle ear;
  • inner ear

The structure of the middle and inner ear of Morganucodon, one of the oldest known mammals, is reviewed and compared to the structure of the ears of extant mammals, reptiles and birds with known auditory capabilities. Specifically, allometric relationships between ear dimensions (basilar-membrane length, tympanic-membrane area and stapes-footplate area) and specific features of the audiogram are defined in extant ears. These relationships are then used to make several predictions of auditory function in Morganucodon. The results point out that the ear structures of Morganucodon–Art similar in dimensions to ear structures in both extant small mammals–with predominantly high-frequency (10 kHz) auditory capabilities, and reptiles and birds- with better low and middle-frequency hearing (< 5 kHz). Although the allometric analysis cannot by itself determine whether Morganucodon heard more like present-day small mammals, or birds and reptiles, the apparent stiffness of the Morganucodon middle ear is both more consistent with the high-frequency mammalian middle ear and would act to decrease the sensitivity of a bird-reptile middle ear to low-frequency sound. Several likely hearing scenarios for Morganucodon are defined, including a scenario in which these animals had ears like those of modern small mammals that are selectively sensitive to high-frequency sounds, and a second scenario in which the Morganucodon ear was moderately sensitive to sounds of a narrow middle-frequency range (5–7 kHz) and relatively insensitive to sounds of higher or lower frequency. The evidence needed to substantiate either scenario includes some objective measure of the stiffness of the Morganucodon ossicular system, while a key datum needed to distinguish between the two hypotheses includes confirmation of the presence or absence of a cochlear lamina in the Morganucodon inner ear.