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Our ears once breathed

January 18, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Fossil evidence points to origin of hearing apparatus.

Our ears could have started evolutionary life as a tube for breathing, say scientists, after examining the ancestral structure in a 370-million-year-old fossil fish.

Evolutionary biologists are intrigued by how complicated sensory organs evolved from structures that may have had completely different uses in ancestral creatures. The bony structures in ancient fish, which at some point turned into ears, for example, appear to have had mainly a structural function, bracing the cheek and holding up the jaw. How exactly they made the transition to their role in hearing has proved a bit of a mystery.

The ear is a relatively easy organ to study. Its evolving bones have been preserved as fossils, whereas the soft tissues of other specialized features, such as eyes and noses, have long decayed.

So Martin Brazeau and Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden decided to take a close look at the ear-like features of an ancient, metre-long monster from the Latvian Natural History Museum in Riga. Panderichthys was a fish, but is thought to be closely related to the earliest four-limbed tetrapods that eventually climbed on to land and gave rise to modern vertebrates.

The researchers examined Panderichthys and found that the bony structures in its head combine features of fish and tetrapods, capturing a snapshot of evolution in action. "It's neat to see that transition," says Hans Thewissen who studies the evolution of the ear and other organs at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Rootstown.

Half-way house

Ancient fish have a narrow channel from the roof of the skull into the mouth, known as a spiracle, which is bounded by a long bone known as the hyomandibula that braces the cheek. In tetrapods, the equivalent bone is stubbier, a step towards the stirrup-like stapes bone that helps to transmit sound waves into our skulls.

The team found that Panderichthys has a wide, straight spiracle rather than a narrow one, and a shortened hyomandibula. They report their findings in Nature1.

Some have previously speculated that our ancient ears may have had a role in breathing.

On the basis of this new fossil evidence, the team speculates that the widened spiracle may have served Panderichthys much like the breathing holes used by modern-day sharks and rays. These allow the fish to inhale water over their gills while lying on the seabed, and avoid gulping in grit through the mouth.

The demonstration of an organ evolving provides tangible evidence against the idea, put forward by some proponents of creationism, that sensory organs are so intricate that they must have been designed by a higher being. Brazeau says: "It's a slap in the face to that kind of thinking."


  1. Brazeau M. D.& Ahlberg P. E.Nature, 439. 318 - 321 (2006).

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