Moth ears have two or four vibration sensitive cells attached to a small eardrum, and are regarded as among the simplest in the insect world. However, in a recent paper, research findings are said to reveal “unexpected sophistication in one of the simplest ears known”. The complexity comes in the way audio signals are processed so as to enhance the sensitivity of certain frequencies. The language of purpose comes naturally: “the moth cleverly tunes its ear to enhance its detection of bats”. These findings are suggested to impact thinking on the co-evolution of bats and moths, but there is no reason why they should not also impact thinking on design in the natural world. Design-oriented biologists have long abandoned the idea that anything is “primitive”. Wherever we look, the reality is always more than first meets the eye!
Keeping up with Bats: Dynamic Auditory Tuning in a MothJames Frederick Charles Windmill, Joseph Curt Jackson, Elizabeth Jane Tuck, and Daniel Robert
Current Biology, Vol 16, 2418-2423, 19 December 2006
Many night-flying insects evolved ultrasound sensitive ears in response to acoustic predation by echolocating bats [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. Noctuid moths are most sensitive to frequencies at 20–40 kHz , the lower range of bat ultrasound [5, 11, 12, 13]. This may disadvantage the moth because noctuid-hunting bats in particular echolocate at higher frequencies shortly before prey capture [7, 11, 12, 13] and thus improve their echolocation and reduce their acoustic conspicuousness [6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16]. Yet, moth hearing is not simple; the ear's nonlinear dynamic response shifts its mechanical sensitivity up to high frequencies. Dependent on incident sound intensity, the moth's ear mechanically tunes up and anticipates the high frequencies used by hunting bats. Surprisingly, this tuning is hysteretic, keeping the ear tuned up for the bat's possible return. A mathematical model is constructed for predicting a linear relationship between the ear's mechanical stiffness and sound intensity. This nonlinear mechanical response is a parametric amplitude dependence [17, 18] that may constitute a feature common to other sensory systems. Adding another twist to the coevolutionary arms race between moths and bats, these results reveal unexpected sophistication in one of the simplest ears known and a novel perspective for interpreting bat echolocation calls.
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