Evolution and function of auditory systems in insects

Naturwissenschaften. 2001 Apr;88(4):159-70. doi: 10.1007/s001140100223.


While the sensing of substrate vibrations is common among arthropods, the reception of sound pressure waves is an adaptation restricted to insects, which has arisen independently several times in different orders. Wherever studied, tympanal organs were shown to derive from chordotonal precursors, which were modified such that mechanosensitive scolopidia became attached to thin cuticular membranes backed by air-filled tracheal cavities (except in lacewings). The behavioural context in which hearing has evolved has strongly determined the design and properties of the auditory system. Hearing organs which have evolved in the context of predator avoidance are highly sensitive, preferentially in a broad range of ultrasound frequencies, which release rapid escape manoeuvres. Hearing in the context of communication does not only require recognition and discrimination of highly specific song patterns but also their localisation. Typically, the spectrum of the conspecific signals matches the best sensitivity of the receiver. Directionality is achieved by means of sophisticated peripheral structures and is further enhanced by neuronal processing. Side-specific gain control typically allows the insect to encode the loudest signal on each side. The filtered information is transmitted to the brain, where the final steps of pattern recognition and localisation occur. The outputs of such filter networks, modulated or gated by further processes (subsumed by the term motivation), trigger command neurones for specific behaviours. Altogether, the many improvements opportunistically evolved at any stage of acoustic information-processing ultimately allow insects to come up with astonishing acoustic performances similar to those achieved by vertebrates.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Pathways / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Hearing / physiology
  • Insecta / classification
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Predatory Behavior