Structure and function of the mammalian middle ear. I: Large middle ears in small desert mammals.
Many species of small desert mammals are known to have expanded auditory bullae. The ears of gerbils and heteromyids have been well described, but much less is known about the middle ear anatomy of other desert mammals. In this study, the middle ears of three gerbils (Meriones, Desmodillus and Gerbillurus), two jerboas (Jaculus) and two sengis (elephant-shrews: Macroscelides and Elephantulus) were examined and compared, using micro-computed tomography and light microscopy. Middle ear cavity expansion has occurred in members of all three groups, apparently in association with an essentially 'freely mobile' ossicular morphology and the development of bony tubes for the middle ear arteries. Cavity expansion can occur in different ways, resulting in different subcavity patterns even between different species of gerbils. Having enlarged middle ear cavities aids low-frequency audition, and several adaptive advantages of low-frequency hearing to small desert mammals have been proposed. However, while Macroscelides was found here to have middle ear cavities so large that together they exceed brain volume, the bullae of Elephantulus are considerably smaller. Why middle ear cavities are enlarged in some desert species but not others remains unclear, but it may relate to microhabitat.