Infrasonic hearing in birds: a review of audiometry and hypothesized structure–function relationships

JN Zeyl, OFC den Ouden, JD Assink, et al.

The perception of airborne infrasound (sounds below 20 Hz, inaudible to humans except at very high levels) has been documented in a handful of mammals and birds. While animals that produce vocalizations with infrasonic components (e.g. elephants) present conspicuous examples of potential use of infrasound in the context of communication, the extent to which airborne infrasound perception exists among terrestrial animals is unclear. Given that most infrasound in the environment arises from geophysical sources, many of which could be ecologically relevant, communication might not be the only use of infrasound by animals. Therefore, infrasound perception could be more common than currently realized. At least three bird species, each of which do not communicate using infrasound, are capable of detecting infrasound,
but the associated auditory mechanisms are not well understood. Here we combine an evaluation of hearing measurements with anatomical observations to propose and evaluate hypotheses supporting avian infrasound detection. Environmental infrasound is mixed with non-acoustic pressure fluctuations that also occur at infrasonic frequencies. The ear can detect such non-acoustic pressure perturbations and therefore, distinguishing responses to infrasound from responses to non-acoustic perturbations presents a great challenge. Our review shows that infrasound could stimulate the ear through the middle ear (tympanic) route and by extratympanic routes bypassing the middle ear. While vibration velocities of the middle ear decline towards infrasonic frequencies, whole-body vibrations – which are normally much lower amplitude
than that those of the middle ear in the ‘audible’ range (i.e. >20 Hz) – do not exhibit a similar decline and therefore may reach vibration magnitudes comparable to the middle ear at infrasonic frequencies. Low stiffness in the middle and inner ear is expected to aid infrasound transmission. In the middle ear, this could be achieved by large air cavities in the skull connected to the middle ear and low stiffness of middle ear structures; in the inner ear, the stiffness of round windows and cochlear partitions are key factors. Within the inner ear, the sizes of the helicotrema and cochlear aqueduct
are expected to play important roles in shunting low-frequency vibrations away from low-frequency hair-cell sensors in the cochlea. The basilar papilla, the auditory organ in birds, responds to infrasound in some species, and in pigeons, infrasonic-sensitive neurons were traced back to the apical, abneural end of the basilar papilla. Vestibular organs and
the paratympanic organ, a hair cell organ outside of the inner ear, are additional untested candidates for infrasound detection in birds. In summary, this review brings together evidence to create a hypothetical framework for infrasonic hearing mechanisms in birds and other animals.

Bibliographic data

JN Zeyl, OFC den Ouden, JD Assink, et al.. Infrasonic hearing in birds: a review of audiometry and hypothesized structure–function relationships
Journal: Biological Reviews, Volume: 95, Year: 2020, First page: 1036, Last page: 1054, doi: 10.1111/brv.12596