'Bizarre!' Frog Tunes Ears to Specific Frequencies

Odorrana tormota frogs, shown here in an illustration, emit high-frequency ultrasound to compete with the din of their noisy surroundings. (Image credit: Margaret Kowalczyk)

An unusual Chinese frog can tune its ears to different sound frequencies, making it the only known animal that can actively dial up something like its local radio stations.

The species, called Odorrana tormota or concave-eared torrent frog, lives near the noisy Yellow Mountain hot springs in central China, and communicates by chirping audible and ultrasonic calls.

A new study found that the frogs have selective hearing, enabling them to listen to the high frequency range when the low frequency background noise of rushing water is too intense for them to pick out the calls of potential mates or rivals.

The frogs do this by opening and closing canals in their eardrums called Eustachian tubes to adjust the range their ears are sensitive to. When the researchers shined a light underneath the frog's chin, they could tell the animal's tubes were open when the light was visible through the eardrum. When the Eustachian tubes closed, circles of light glowing out through the ears disappeared (see video).

"We said, 'Whoa! This is bizarre!'" said University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher Albert Feng. "In all textbooks on sound communication and hearing in frogs, it is plainly stated that the Eustachian tubes are permanently open!"

The discovery, described in this week's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may help researchers design better hearing aids for humans that can hone in on important frequency ranges.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.