Hearing of the African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) suggests underwater pressure detection and rudimentary aerial hearing in early tetrapods

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In the transition from an aquatic to a terrestrial lifestyle, vertebrate auditory systems have undergone major changes while adapting to aerial hearing. Lungfish are the closest living relatives of tetrapods and their auditory system may therefore be a suitable model of the auditory systems of early tetrapods such as Acanthostega. Therefore, experimental studies on the hearing capabilities of lungfish may shed light on the possible hearing capabilities of early tetrapods and broaden our understanding of hearing across the water-to-land transition. Here, we tested the hypotheses that (i) lungfish are sensitive to underwater pressure using their lungs as pressure-to-particle motion transducers and (ii) lungfish can detect airborne sound. To do so, we used neurophysiological recordings to estimate the vibration and pressure sensitivity of African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) in both water and air. We show that lungfish detect underwater sound pressure via pressure-to-particle motion transduction by air volumes in their lungs. The morphology of lungfish shows no specialized connection between these air volumes and the inner ears, and so our results imply that air breathing may have enabled rudimentary pressure detection as early as the Devonian era. Additionally, we demonstrate that lungfish in spite of their atympanic middle ear can detect airborne sound through detection of sound-induced head vibrations. This strongly suggests that even vertebrates with no middle ear adaptations for aerial hearing, such as the first tetrapods, had rudimentary aerial hearing that may have led to the evolution of tympanic middle ears in recent tetrapods.

Translated title of the contributionHørelse hos den Afrikanske lungefisk (Protopterus annectens): Evidens for trykfølsomhed og rudimentær hørelse i luft hos de tidlige tetrapoder
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)381-387
Publication statusPublished - 1. Feb 2015


  • Auditory evoked potentials
  • Auditory system
  • Early tetrapods
  • Vibration detection


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