Tracing evolution of mammalian hearing: Essential ear bones were once part of the jaw

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A newly discovered species, Origolestes lii lived during the time of the dinosaurs, some 123 million years ago. Credit: Chuang Zhao

One hundred and twenty million years ago, when northeastern China was a series of lakes and erupting volcanoes, there lived a tiny mammal just a few inches long. When it died, it was fossilized down to its most minuscule ear bones. And it is these ear bones that have so intrigued scientists.

Today, mammals have three small bones in the ear that transmit sound from the eardrum: the malleus, incus, and stapes. A wealth of evidence from fossils and developing embryos suggests that two of these ear bones were once jawbones. Over millions of years of evolution, they shrank in relative size and detached completely from the jaw. Reptiles—like our nonmammalian ancestors, probably—hear by placing their jaw on the ground to pick up low-frequency vibrations. But mammals, with their three ear bones, can hear high-pitched sounds in the air: insects buzzing, wind rustling, birds squawking, music, speech.

Related article:  Being a vegetarian can kill you? How the press mashed a genetics story

The fossilized mammal found in northeastern China, named Origolestes lii, has an ear that looks close to modern. While parts of its body still look quite ancient, its ear bones, according to the study’s authors, have moved away and detached from the jaw.

Read full, original post: Why Mammals Are So Good at Hearing (And Chewing)

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