Functional Implications of Ubiquitous Semicircular Canal Non-Orthogonality in Mammals
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The ‘canonical model’ of semicircular canal orientation in mammals assumes that 1) the three ipsilateral canals of an inner ear exist in orthogonal planes (i.e., orthogonality), 2) corresponding left and right canal pairs have equivalent angles (i.e., angle symmetry), and 3) contralateral synergistic canals occupy parallel planes (i.e., coplanarity). However, descriptions of vestibular anatomy that quantify semicircular canal orientation in single species often diverge substantially from this model. Data for primates further suggest that semicircular canal orthogonality varies predictably with the angular head velocities encountered in locomotion. These observations raise the possibility that orthogonality, symmetry, and coplanarity are misleading descriptors of semicircular canal orientation in mammals, and that deviations from these norms could have significant functional consequences. Here we critically assess the canonical model of semicircular canal orientation using high-resolution X-ray computed tomography scans of 39 mammal species. We find that substantial deviations from orthogonality, angle symmetry, and coplanarity are the rule for the mammals in our comparative sample. Furthermore, the degree to which the semicircular canals of a given species deviate from orthogonality is negatively correlated with estimated vestibular sensitivity. We conclude that the available comparative morphometric data do not support the canonical model and that its overemphasis as a heuristic generalization obscures a large amount of functionally relevant variation in semicircular canal orientation between species.