Sound and vibration are generated by mechanical disturbances within the environment, and the ability to detect and localize these acoustic cues is generally important for survival, as suggested by the early emergence of inherently directional otolithic ears in vertebrate evolutionary history. However, fossil evidence indicates that the water-adapted ear of early terrestrial tetrapods lacked specialized peripheral structures to transduce sound pressure (e.g., tympana). Early terrestrial hearing therefore should have required nontympanic (or extratympanic) mechanisms for sound detection and localization. Here we used atympanate salamanders to investigate the efficacy of extratympanic pathways to support directional hearing in air. We assessed peripheral encoding of directional acoustic information using directionally-masked auditory brainstem response recordings. We used laser Doppler vibrometry to measure the velocity of sound pressure-induced head vibrations as a key extratympanic mechanism for aerial sound reception in atympanate species. We found that sound generates head vibrations that vary with the angle of the incident sound. This extratympanic pathway for hearing supports a figure-eight pattern of directional auditory sensitivity to airborne sound in the absence of a pressure-transducing tympanic ear.

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