The mechanoreceptive origin of insect tympanal organs: a comparative study of similar nerves in tympanate and atympanate moths

J Comp Neurol. 1990 Oct 22;300(4):523-34. doi: 10.1002/cne.903000407.


A chordotonal organ occurring in the posterior metathorax of an atympanate moth, Actias luna (L.) (Bombycoidea: Saturniidae), appears to be homologous to the tympanal organ of the noctuoid moth. The peripheral anatomy of the metathoracic nerve branch, IIIN1b1 was examined in Actias luna with cobalt-lysine and Janus Green B, and compared to its counterpart, IIIN1b (the tympanal branch), in Feltia heralis (Grt.) (Noctuoidea: Noctuidae). The peripheral projections of IIIN1b1 were found to be similar in both species, dividing into three branches, the second (IIIN1b1b) ending as a chordotonal organ. The atympanate organ possesses three sensory cell bodies and three scolopales, and is anchored peripherally via an attachment strand to the undifferentiated membranous region underlying the hindwing alula, which corresponds to the tympanal region of the noctuoid metathorax. Extracellular recordings of the IIIN1b1 nerve in Actias luna revealed a large spontaneously active unit which fired in a regular pattern (corresponding to the noctuoid B cell) and smaller units (corresponding to the noctuoid acoustic A cells) which responded phasically to low frequency sounds (2 kHz) played at high intensities (83-96 dB, SPL) and also responded phasically to raising and lowering movements of the hindwing. We suggest that the chordotonal organ in Actias luna represents the evolutionary prototype to the noctuoid tympanal organ, and that it acts as a proprioceptor monitoring hindwing movements. This system, in its simplicity (consisting of only a few neurons) could be a useful model for examining the changes to the nervous system (both central and peripheral) that accompanied the evolutionary development of insect tympanal organs.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Action Potentials
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Mechanoreceptors / ultrastructure*
  • Moths / anatomy & histology*
  • Sense Organs / innervation*
  • Species Specificity
  • Wings, Animal / physiology