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Evolutionary origins of ultrasonic hearing and laryngeal echolocation in bats inferred from morphological analyses of the inner ear

Kalina TJ Davies1*, Ibnu Maryanto2 and Stephen J Rossiter1*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Biological & Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, E1 4NS, London, United Kingdom

2 Bogor Zoological Museum, LIPI, Jl. Raya Jakarta-Bogor, KM. 46, Cibinong, Bogor, Indonesia

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Frontiers in Zoology 2013, 10:2  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-10-2

Published: 30 January 2013



Many mammals have evolved highly adapted hearing associated with ecological specialisation. Of these, bats possess the widest frequency range of vocalisations and associated hearing sensitivities, with frequencies of above 200 kHz in some lineages that use laryngeal echolocation. High frequency hearing in bats appears to have evolved via structural modifications of the inner ear, however, studying these minute features presents considerable challenges and hitherto few such attempts have been made. To understand these adaptations more fully, as well as gain insights into the evolutionary origins of ultrasonic hearing and echolocation in bats, we undertook micro-computed tomography (╬╝CT) scans of the cochleae of representative bat species from 16 families, encompassing their broad range of ecological diversity. To characterise cochlear gross morphology, we measured the relative basilar membrane length and number of turns, and compared these values between echolocating and non-echolocating bats, as well as other mammals.


We found that hearing and echolocation call frequencies in bats correlated with both measures of cochlear morphology. In particular, relative basilar membrane length was typically longer in echolocating species, and also correlated positively with the number of cochlear turns. Ancestral reconstructions of these parameters suggested that the common ancestor of all extant bats was probably capable of ultrasonic hearing; however, we also found evidence of a significant decrease in the rate of morphological evolution of the basilar membrane in multiple ancestral branches within the Yangochiroptera suborder. Within the echolocating Yinpterochiroptera, there was some evidence of an increase in the rate of basilar membrane evolution in some tips of the tree, possibly associated with reported shifts in call frequency associated with recent speciation events.


The two main groups of echolocating bat were found to display highly variable inner ear morphologies. Ancestral reconstructions and rate shift analyses of ear morphology point to a complex evolutionary history, with the former supporting ultrasonic hearing in the common bat ancestor but the latter suggesting that morphological changes associated with echolocation might have occurred later. These findings are consistent with theories that sophisticated laryngeal echolocation, as seen in modern lineages, evolved following the divergence of the two main suborders.

Cochlea; Echolocation; Traits; Ancestral reconstruction; Hearing