Echolocation, high frequency hearing, and gene expression in the inner ear of bats
Wilkinson, Gerald S
Moss, Cynthia F
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Bats are the only mammals capable of true flight, and are the second-most speciose mammalian radiation, represented by over 1200 extant species. Key to their evolutionary success was echolocation, which is a complex trait requiring specializations for vocalization, hearing, and echo processing. Because they rely on detecting and analyzing echoes that may return greatly attenuated relative to their outgoing calls, interference from non-target ‘clutter’ echoes poses a challenge for echolocating bats. Here, I demonstrate that the echolocating bat Eptesicus fuscus alters its echolocation behavior to ameliorate the impact of clutter echoes when tracking a moving target, and that the magnitude of its behavioral adjustments depended on the distance and angular offset of two symmetrically placed ‘distracter’ objects. Furthermore, I found that individual bats make different adjustments to their calls, call timing, or head movements, suggesting that multiple strategies for echolocating in clutter may exist. In my second chapter, I examined the expression patterns of hearing-related genes in juvenile bats. Biomedical research establishing the functional roles of hearing genes rarely examines gene expression beyond the early post-natal stage, even though high frequency hearing does not mature until late in development. I show that several key hearing genes implicated in human deafness are upregulated in juvenile bats relative to adults, or exhibit sustained upregulation through the developmental period corresponding to the maturation of echolocation behavior. In my third chapter, I review the evolution of high frequency hearing in mammals, focusing on echolocating bats and whales, which have independently evolved this complex trait. I provide an overview of recent studies that have reported molecular convergence in hearing genes among distantly related echolocators, and assert that the contribution of gene expression to hearing deserves further investigation. Finally, I argue that echolocators provide a unique opportunity to investigate the basis of high frequency amplification, and may possess mechanisms of hearing protection which enable them to prolong the use of echolocation throughout their long lives.