Semicircular canals and agility: the influence of size and shape measures

J Anat. 2010 Jan;216(1):37-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01172.x. Epub 2009 Nov 25.


The semicircular canals of the inner ear sense angular accelerations and decelerations of the head and enable co-ordination of posture and body movement, as well as visual stability. Differences of agility and spatial sensitivity among species have been linked to interspecific differences in the relative size of the canals, particularly the radius of curvature (R) and the ratio of the canal plane area to streamline length (P/L). Here we investigate the scaling relationships of these two size variables and also out-of-plane torsion in the three semicircular canals (anterior, posterior and lateral), in order to assess which is more closely correlated with body size and locomotor agility. Measurements were computed from 3D landmarks taken from magnetic resonance images of a diverse sample of placental mammals encompassing 16 eutherian orders. Body masses were collected from the literature and an agility score was assigned to each species. The R and P/L of all three semicircular canals were found to have highly significant positive correlations with each other and no statistical difference was found between the slope of 2P/L against R and 1. This indicated that, contrary to initial hypotheses, there is little difference between 2P/L and R as measures of semicircular canal size. A measure of the in-plane circularity of the canal was obtained by dividing 2P/L by R and out-of-plane torsion was measured as angular deviation from a plane of best fit. It was predicted that deviations from in-plane and out-of-plane circularity would increase at small body size due to the constraints of fitting a proportionately larger canal into a smaller petrous bone. However, neither measurement was found to have a significant correlation with body mass, indicating that deviations from circularity (both in-plane and out-of-plane) are not sufficient to alter P/L to an extent that would impact the sensitivity of the canals. 2P/L and R were both shown to be significantly correlated with locomotor agility. The posterior canal was the least correlated with agility, suggesting that it may be generally less closely aligned to the direction of movement than the anterior canal. Of the three canals, the lateral canal was the most highly correlated with agility. In particular, it could be used to distinguish between species that move in a largely 2D environment and those that locomote in 3D space (aerial, arboreal and aquatic species). This complements previous work suggesting that the lateral canal primarily commands navigation, whereas the vertical canals control reflex adjustments. It was also found that 2P/L is substantially better correlated with agility than is R in the lateral canal. This result is intriguing given the above finding that there is no statistical difference between 2P/L and R, and requires further investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Mass Index
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Mammals / anatomy & histology*
  • Mammals / classification
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Phylogeny
  • Semicircular Canals / anatomy & histology*
  • Semicircular Canals / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Torsion, Mechanical