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Petrosal morphology and cochlear function in Mesozoic stem therians

By Tony Harper, Guillermo Rougier

Posted 07 Dec 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/490367 (published DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0209457)

Here we describe the bony anatomy of the inner ear and surrounding structures seen in three of the most plesiomorphic crown mammalian petrosal specimens in the fossil record. Our study sample includes the stem therian taxa Priacodon fruitaensis from the Upper Jurassic of North America, and two isolated petrosal specimens colloquially known as the Höövör petrosals, recovered from Aptian-Albian sediments in Mongolia. The second Höövör petrosal is here described at length for the first time. All three of these stem therian petrosals and a comparative sample of extant mammalian taxa have been imaged using micro-CT, allowing for detailed anatomical descriptions of osteological correlates of functionally significant neurovascular features, especially along the abneural wall of the cochlear canal. The high resolution imaging provided here clarifies several hypotheses regarding the mosaic evolution of features of the cochlear endocast in early mammals. In particular, these images demonstrate that the membranous cochlear duct adhered to the bony cochlear canal abneurally to a secondary bony lamina before the appearance of an opposing primary bony lamina or tractus foraminosus. Additionally, while corroborating the general trend of reduction of venous sinuses and plexuses within the pars cochlearis seen in crownward mammaliaformes generally, the Höövör petrosals show the localized enlargement of a portion of the intrapetrosal venous plexus. This new excavation is for the vein of cochlear aqueduct, a structure that is solely or predominantly responsible for the venous drainage of the cochlear apparatus in extant therians. However, given that these stem therian inner ears appear to have very limited high-frequency capabilities, the development of these modern vascular features the cochlear endocast suggest that neither the initiation or enlargement of the stria vascularis (a unique mammalian organ) is originally associated with the capacity for high-frequency hearing or precise sound-source localization.

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