Evolutionary biologists have long wondered why the eardrum—the membrane that relays sound waves to the inner ear—looks in humans and other mammals remarkably like the one in reptiles and birds. Did the membrane and therefore the ability to hear in these groups evolve from a common ancestor? Or did the auditory systems evolve independently to perform the same function, a phenomenon called convergent evolution? A recent set of experiments performed at the University of Tokyo and the RIKEN Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory in Japan resolves the issue.

When the scientists genetically inhibited lower jaw development in both fetal mice and chickens, the mice formed neither eardrums nor ear canals. In contrast, the birds grew two upper jaws, from which two sets of eardrums and ear canals sprouted. The results, published in Nature Communications, confirm that the middle ear grows out of the lower jaw in mammals but emerges from the upper jaw in birds—all supporting the hypothesis that the similar anatomy evolved independently in mammals and in reptiles and birds. (Scientific American is part of Springer Nature.) Fossils of auditory bones had supported this conclusion as well, but eardrums do not fossilize and so could not be examined directly.

Hear, hear for genetics!