Evolution of the auditory ossicles in extant hominids: metric variation in African apes and humans

J Anat. 2014 Aug;225(2):167-96. doi: 10.1111/joa.12197. Epub 2014 May 20.


The auditory ossicles in primates have proven to be a reliable source of phylogenetic information. Nevertheless, to date, very little data have been published on the metric dimensions of the ear ossicles in African apes and humans. The present study relies on the largest samples of African ape ear ossicles studied to date to address questions of taxonomic differences and the evolutionary transformation of the ossicles in gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. Both African ape taxa show a malleus that is characterized by a long and slender manubrium and relatively short corpus, whereas humans show the opposite constellation of a short and thick manubrium and relatively long corpus. These changes in the manubrium are plausibly linked with changes in the size of the tympanic membrane. The main difference between the incus in African apes and humans seems to be related to changes in the functional length. Compared with chimpanzees, human incudes are larger in nearly all dimensions, except articular facet height, and show a more open angle between the axes. The gorilla incus resembles humans more closely in its metric dimensions, including functional length, perhaps as a result of the dramatically larger body size compared with chimpanzees. The differences between the stapedes of humans and African apes are primarily size-related, with humans being larger in nearly all dimensions. Nevertheless, some distinctions between the African apes were found in the obturator foramen and head height. Although correlations between metric variables in different ossicles were generally lower than those between variables in the same bone, variables of the malleus/incus complex appear to be more strongly correlated than those of the incus/stapes complex, perhaps reflecting the different embryological and evolutionary origins of the ossicles. The middle ear lever ratio for the African apes is similar to other haplorhines, but humans show the lowest lever ratio within primates. Very low levels of sexual dimorphism were found in the ossicles within each taxon, but some relationship with body size and several dimensions of the ear bones was found. Several of the metric distinctions in the incus and stapes imply a slightly different articulation of the ossicular chain within the tympanic cavity in African apes compared with humans. The limited auditory implications of these metric differences in the ossicles are also discussed. Finally, the results of this study suggest that several plesiomorphic features for apes may be retained in the ear bones of the early hominin taxa Australopithecus and Paranthropus as well as in the Neandertals.

Keywords: incus; malleus; primates; stapes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cadaver
  • Ear Ossicles / anatomy & histology*
  • Female
  • Hominidae / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts
  • Middle Aged
  • Principal Component Analysis