The inner ear of fishes contains three paired otolithic end organs, the saccule, lagena and utricle, which function as biological accelerometers. The saccule is the largest otolith in most fishes and much of our current understanding on auditory function in this diverse group of vertebrates is derived from anatomical and neurophysiological studies on this end organ. In contrast, less is known about how the utricle contributes to auditory functions. In this study, chronically implanted electrodes were used, along with neural telemetry or tethers to record primary afferent responses from the utricular nerve in free-ranging and naturally behaving oyster toadfish Opsanus tau Linnaeus. The hypothesis was that the utricle plays a role in detecting underwater sounds, including conspecific vocalizations, and exhibits directional sensitivity. Utricular afferents responded best to low frequency (80-200 Hz) pure tones and to playbacks of conspecific boatwhistles and grunts (80-180 Hz fundamental frequency), with the majority of the units (∼75%) displaying a clear, directional response, which may allow the utricle to contribute to sound detection and localization during social interactions. Responses were well within the sound intensity levels of toadfish vocalization (approximately 140 SPL dBrms re. 1 μPa with fibers sensitive to thresholds of approximately 120 SPL dBrms re. 1 μPa). Neurons were also stimulated by self-generated body movements such as opercular movements and swimming. This study is the first to investigate underwater sound-evoked response properties of primary afferents from the utricle of an unrestrained/ unanesthetized free-swimming teleost fish. These data provide experimental evidence that the utricle has an auditory function, and can contribute to directional hearing to facilitate sound localization.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We thank Jack Lyons and Max Deffenbaugh for technical assistance, the Marine Resources Center for supplying toadfish, and Catherine Carr, Gal Haspel and the Marine Biological Laboratory for logistical support. This study was funded in part by the Grass Foundation Fellowship Program; Marine Biological Laboratory Neuroscience Institute; and National Science Foundation Awards IOS [nos 0316130 and 0843735] to A.F.M.