Sound localization is a basic processing task of the auditory system. The directional detection of an incident sound impinging on the ears relies on two acoustic cues: interaural amplitude and interaural time differences. In small animals, with short interaural distances both amplitude and time cues can become very small, challenging the directional sensitivity of the auditory system. The ears of a parasitoid fly Ormia ochracea, are unusual in that both acoustic sensors are separated by only 520 μm and are contained within an undivided air-filled chamber. This anatomy results in minuscule differences in interaural time cues (ca. 2 μs) and no measurable difference in interaural intensity cues generated from an incident sound wave.
The tympana of both ears are anatomically coupled by a cuticular bridge. This bridge also mechanically couples the tympanana, providing a basis for directional sensitivity. Using laser vibrometry, it is shown that the mechanical response of the tympanal membranes has a pronounced directional sensitivity. Interaural time and intensity differences in the mechanical response of the ears are significantly larger than those available in the acoustic field. The tympanal membranes vibrate with amplitude differences of about 12 dB and time differences on the order of 50 μs to sounds at 90° off the longitudinal body axis. The analysis of the deflection shapes of the tympanal vibrations shows that the interaural differences in the mechanical response are due to the dynamic properties of the tympanal system and reflect its intrinsic sensitivity to the direction of a sound source. Using probe microphones and extracellular recording techniques, we show that the primary auditory afferents encode sound direction with a time delay of about 300 μs. Our data point to a novel mechanism for directional hearing in O. ochracea based on intertympanal mechanical coupling, a process that amplifies small acoustic cues into interaural time and amplitude differences that can be reliably processed at the neural level. An intuitive description of the mechanism is proposed using a simple mechanical model in which the ears are coupled through a flexible lever.