Adaptive hearing in the vocal plainfin midshipman fish: getting in tune for the breeding season and implications for acoustic communication


  • Joseph A. SISNEROS

    1. Department of Psychology, the Department of Biology and the Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
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Correspondence: Joseph A. Sisneros, University of Washington, Department of Psychology, Guthrie Hall, Box 351525, Seattle, WA 98195, USA. Email:


The plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus Girard, 1854) is a vocal species of batrachoidid fish that generates acoustic signals for intraspecific communication during social and reproductive activity and has become a good model for investigating the neural and endocrine mechanisms of vocal-acoustic communication. Reproductively active female plainfin midshipman fish use their auditory sense to detect and locate “singing” males, which produce a multiharmonic advertisement call to attract females for spawning. The seasonal onset of male advertisement calling in the midshipman fish coincides with an increase in the range of frequency sensitivity of the female's inner ear saccule, the main organ of hearing, thus leading to enhanced encoding of the dominant frequency components of male advertisement calls. Non-reproductive females treated with either testosterone or 17β-estradiol exhibit a dramatic increase in the inner ear's frequency sensitivity that mimics the reproductive female's auditory phenotype and leads to an increased detection of the male's advertisement call. This novel form of auditory plasticity provides an adaptable mechanism that enhances coupling between sender and receiver in vocal communication. This review focuses on recent evidence for seasonal reproductive-state and steroid-dependent plasticity of auditory frequency sensitivity in the peripheral auditory system of the midshipman fish. The potential steroid-dependent mechanism(s) that lead to this novel form of auditory and behavioral plasticity are also discussed.