Hearing in subterranean rodents exhibits numerous peculiarities, including low sensitivity and restriction to a narrow range of comparatively low frequencies. Past studies provided two conflicting hypotheses explaining how these derived traits evolved: structural degeneration and adaptive specialization. To further elucidate this issue, we recorded auditory brainstem responses from three species of social subterranean rodents that differ in the degree of specialization to the underground habitat: the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) and the Mashona mole-rat (Fukomys darlingi), which represent the ancient lineage of African mole-rats (Bathyergidae), and the coruro (Spalacopus cyanus), a South American rodent (Octodontidae) that adopted a subterranean lifestyle in more recent geological time. Additionally, we measured call amplitudes of social vocalizations to study auditory vocal coupling. We found elevated auditory thresholds and severe hearing range restrictions in the African mole-rats, with hearing in naked mole-rats tending to be more sensitive than in Mashona mole-rats, in which hearing notably deteriorated with increasing age. In contrast, hearing in coruros was similar to that of epigeic rodents, with its range extending into ultrasonic frequencies. However, as in the mole-rats, the coruros’ region of best hearing was located at low frequencies close to 1 kHz. We argue that the auditory sensitivity of African mole-rats, although remarkably poor, has been underestimated by recent studies, whereas data on coruros conform to previous results. Considering the available evidence, we propose to be open to both degenerative and adaptive interpretations of hearing physiology in subterranean mammals, as each may provide convincing explanations for specific auditory traits observed.

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