The structure and function of auditory chordotonal organs in insects

Microsc Res Tech. 2004 Apr 15;63(6):315-37. doi: 10.1002/jemt.20051.


Insects are capable of detecting a broad range of acoustic signals transmitted through air, water, or solids. Auditory sensory organs are morphologically diverse with respect to their body location, accessory structures, and number of sensilla, but remarkably uniform in that most are innervated by chordotonal organs. Chordotonal organs are structurally complex Type I mechanoreceptors that are distributed throughout the insect body and function to detect a wide range of mechanical stimuli, from gross motor movements to air-borne sounds. At present, little is known about how chordotonal organs in general function to convert mechanical stimuli to nerve impulses, and our limited understanding of this process represents one of the major challenges to the study of insect auditory systems today. This report reviews the literature on chordotonal organs innervating insect ears, with the broad intention of uncovering some common structural specializations of peripheral auditory systems, and identifying new avenues for research. A general overview of chordotonal organ ultrastructure is presented, followed by a summary of the current theories on mechanical coupling and transduction in monodynal, mononematic, Type 1 scolopidia, which characteristically innervate insect ears. Auditory organs of different insect taxa are reviewed, focusing primarily on tympanal organs, and with some consideration to Johnston's and subgenual organs. It is widely accepted that insect hearing organs evolved from pre-existing proprioceptive chordotonal organs. In addition to certain non-neural adaptations for hearing, such as tracheal expansion and cuticular thinning, the chordotonal organs themselves may have intrinsic specializations for sound reception and transduction, and these are discussed. In the future, an integrated approach, using traditional anatomical and physiological techniques in combination with new methodologies in immunohistochemistry, genetics, and biophysics, will assist in refining hypotheses on how chordotonal organs function, and, ultimately, lead to new insights into the peripheral mechanisms underlying hearing in insects.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Auditory Pathways / physiology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Ear / anatomy & histology*
  • Ear / physiology
  • Ear, Middle / anatomy & histology*
  • Hearing / physiology*
  • Insecta