Semicircular canal geometry, afferent sensitivity, and animal behavior

Timothy E. Hullar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


The geometry of the semicircular canals has been used in evolutionary studies to predict the behaviors of extinct animals. These predictions have relied on an assumption that the responses of the canals can be determined from their dimensions, and that an organism's behavior can be determined from these responses. However, the relationship between a canal's sensitivity and its size is not well known. An intraspecies comparison among canal responses in each of three species (cat, squirrel monkey, and pigeon) was undertaken to evaluate various models of canal function and determine how their dimensions may be related to afferent physiology. All models predicted the responses of the cat afferents, but the models performed less well for squirrel monkey and pigeon. Possible causes for this discrepancy include incorrectly assuming that afferent responses accurately represent canal function or errors in current biophysical models of the canals. These findings leave open the question as to how reliably canal anatomy can be used to estimate afferent responses and how closely afferent responses are related to behavior. Other labyrinthine features, such as orientation of the horizontal canal, which is reliably held near earth-horizontal across many species, may be better to use when extrapolating the posture and related behavior of extinct animals from labyrinthine morphology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)466-472
Number of pages7
JournalAnatomical Record - Part A Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Evolution
  • Labyrinth
  • Torsion-pendulum
  • Vestibular

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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