Living in a "stethoscope": burrow-acoustics promote auditory specializations in subterranean rodents.
Subterranean mammals rely to a great extent on audition for communication and to be alerted to danger. The only hitherto published report on burrow acoustics revealed that in tunnels of blind mole-rats (Spalax ehrenbergi), airborne sounds of 440 Hz propagated best whereas lower and higher frequencies were effectively attenuated. Morpho-functional analyses classify the ear of subterranean mammals as a low-sensitivity and low-frequency device. Concordantly, hearing is characterized by low sensitivity and a restricted frequency range tuned to low frequencies (0.5-4 kHz). Some authors considered the restricted hearing in subterranean mammals vestigial and degenerate due to under-stimulation. In contrast to this view stand a rich (mostly low-frequency) vocal repertoire and progressive structural specializations of the middle and inner ear. Thus, other authors considered these hearing characteristics adaptive. To test the hypothesis that acoustical environment in burrows of different species of subterranean mammals is similar, we measured sound attenuation in burrows of Fukomys mole-rats (formerly known as Cryptomys, cf. Kock et al. 2006) of two differently sized species at different locations in Zambia. We show that in these burrows, low-frequency sounds (200-800 Hz) are not only least attenuated but also their amplitude may be amplified like in a stethoscope (up to two times over 1 m). We suggest that hearing sensitivity has decreased during evolution of subterranean mammals to avoid over-stimulation of the ear in their natural environment.
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