How ambient noise may shape peripheral auditory sensitivity: a theoretical model on the trade-off between signal detection and recognition

  • Marco LugliEmail author
Original Paper


Ambient noise affects hearing in natural environments and may therefore affect the evolution of animal acoustic signals and auditory sensitivity. An earlier fitness model examining variable ambient noise conditions predicted higher sensitivity as the best strategy for species living in quiet habitats as opposed to lower sensitivity for the ones in noisy habitats. The trade-off between detection and recognition of acoustic signals appeared to be a key factor determining hearing sensitivity for acoustic communication in the presence of noise. The original model focused on the best auditory range of two U-shaped audiograms differing in sensitivity only (i.e., low and high). Here the model is extended by employing additional sensitivity levels and investigating the full range of hearing in order to examine (a) conditions favoring auditory sensitivity in a model characterized by the presence of multiple sensitivity and sound levels, and (b) the importance of other audiogram features, such as bandwidth and shape, which are assessed by analyzing the fitness consequences associated with bandwidth variation in the auditory system displaying best sensitivity. The model also allows theoretical insights into the importance of the detection-recognition trade-off for the evolution of the auditory critical bandwidths and ratios. The model predicted that a successful receiver should evolve an auditory system of either low or high sensitivity, but not intermediate. When low sensitivity pays, the audiogram shape should follow the profile of maximum noise levels encountered in the receiver’s environment. When high sensitivity pays, the audiogram should maximize bandwidth. A high sensitivity system with larger critical bandwidths may be successful only if the ensuing cost due to lower detection performance is outweighed by the benefit of improved sound recognition.


Acoustic communication Hearing thresholds Fitness analysis Noise spectrum Noise masking Audiogram shape Critical ratio 



The manuscript was improved by comments from Michael Fine, Antonio Bodini and two anonymous referees. Anila Ruth Scott-Monkhouse improved the ‘written English’. This research was partially supported by grants from FIL (local funds) of the University of Parma.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicts of interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


  1. Amoser S, Ladich F (2005) Are hearing sensitivities of freshwater fishes adapted to the ambient noise of their habitats? J Exp Biol 208:3533–3542CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Assmann PF, Summerfield AQ (2004) The perception of speech under adverse conditions. In: Greenberg S, Ainsworth WA, Popper AN, Fay RR (eds) Speech processing in the auditory system, vol 14. Springer, Berlin, pp 231–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bradbury JW, Vehrencamp SL (2011) Principles of animal communication, 2nd edn. Sinauer Associates, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  4. Brown CH, Sinnott JM (1990) The perception of complex acoustic patterns in noise by blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) and human listeners. Int J Comp Psychol 4:79–90Google Scholar
  5. Brumm H, Slabbekoorn H (2005) Acoustic communication in noise. In: Slater PJB, Snowdon CT, Brockman HJ, Roper TJ, Naguib M (eds) Advances in the study of behavior, vol 35. Elsevier, San Diego, pp 151–209Google Scholar
  6. Capranica RR, Moffat AJM (1983) Neurobehavioral correlates of sound communication in anurans. In: Ewert JP, Capranica RR, Ingle D (eds) Advances in vertebrate neuroethology. Plenum, New York, pp 701–730CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dooling RJ, Lohr B, Dent ML (2000) Hearing in birds and reptiles. In: Dooling RJ, Fay RR, Popper AN (eds) Comparative hearing: birds and reptiles, vol 13. Springer Handbook of Auditory Research. Springer, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Endler JA (2000) Evolutionary implications of the interaction between animal signals and the environment. In: Espmark Y, Amundsen T, Rosenquist G (eds) Animal signals: signalling and signal design in animal communication. Tapir Academic Press, Trondheim, pp 11–46Google Scholar
  9. Erbe C, Reichmuth C, Cunningham K, Lucke K, Dooling R (2016) Communication masking in marine mammals: a review and research strategy. Mar Pollut Bull 103:15–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fletcher H (1940) Auditory patterns. Reviews of modern physics 12:47–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gridi-Papp M, Narins PM (2009) Environmental influences in the evolution of tetrapod hearing sensitivity and middle ear tuning. Integr Comp Biol 49:702–716CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hawkins AD (1981) The hearing abilities of fish. In: Tavolga WN, Popper AN, Fay RR (eds) Hearing and sound communication in fishes. Springer, New York, pp 109–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kalmijn AJ (1988) Hydrodynamic and acoustic field detection. In: Atema J, Fay RR, Popper AN, Tavolga WN (eds) Sensory biology of aquatic animals. Springer, New York, pp 83–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ladich F, Bass AH (2003) Underwater sound generation and acoustic reception in fishes with some notes on frogs. In: Colin SP, Marshall NJ (eds) Sensory processing in aquatic environments. Springer, New-York, pp 173–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lugli M (2015) The trade-off between signal detection and recognition rules auditory sensitivity under variable background noise conditions. J Theor Biol 386:1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lugli M, Yan HY, Fine ML (2003) Acoustic communication in two freshwater gobies: the relationship between ambient noise, hearing thresholds and sound spectrum. J Comp Physiol A 189:309–320Google Scholar
  17. Merchant ND, Blondel P, Dakin DT, Dorocicz J (2012) Averaging underwater noise levels for environmental assessment of shipping. J Acoust Soc Am 132:343–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Moore BCJ (1995) Frequency analysis and masking. In: Moore BCJ (ed) Handbook of perception and cognition, 2nd edn. Academic Press, Cambridge, pp 161–205Google Scholar
  19. Moore BCJ (2008) Basic auditory processes involved in the analysis of speech sounds. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B 363:947–963CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Nedelec SL, Campbell J, Radford AN, Simpson SD, Merchant ND (2016) Particle motion: the missing link in underwater acoustic ecology. Methods Ecol Evol 7:836–842CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Oxenham AJ, Kreft HA (2014) Speech perception in tones and noise via cochlear implants reveals influence of spectral resolution on temporal processing. Trends in Hearing 18:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Picciulin M, Sebastianutto L, Codarin A, Farina A, Ferrero EA (2010) In-situ behavioral responses to boat noise exposure of Gobius cruentatus and Chromis chromis living in a Marine Protected Area. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 386:125–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Popper AN, Fay RR (1999) The auditory periphery in fishes. In: Fay RR, Popper AN (eds) Comparative hearing: fish and amphibians. Springer, New York, pp 43–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Popper AN, Fay RR (2011) Rethinking sound detection by fishes. Hear Res 273:25–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Römer H, Bailey W (1998) Strategies for hearing in noise: peripheral control over auditory sensitivity in the bushcricket Sciarasaga quadrata (Austrosaginae: Tettigoniidae). J Exp Biol 201:1023–1033Google Scholar
  26. Ryan MJ, Brenowitz EA (1985) The role of body size, phylogeny, and ambient noise in the evolution of bird song. Am Nat 126:87–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Schmidt AKD, Riede K, Römer H (2011) High background noise shapes selective auditory filters in a tropical cricket. J Exp Biol 214:1754–1762CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Scholik AR, Yan HY (2001) Effects of underwater noise on auditory sensitivity of a cyprinid fish. Hear Res 152:17–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Skowronski MD, Harris JG (2004) Exploiting independent filter bandwidth of human factor cepstral coefficients in automatic speech recognition. J Acoust Soc Am 116:1774–1780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Smith ZM, Delgutte B, Oxenham AJ (2002) Chimeric sounds reveal dichotomies in auditory perception. Nature 416:87–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Waser PM, Brown CH (1986) Habitat acoustics and primate communication. Am J Primatol 10:135–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Watkins WA (1967) The harmonic interval: fact or artifact in spectral analysis of pulse trains. In: Tavolga WN (ed) Marine bio-acoustics, vol II. Pergamon Press, New York, pp 15–43Google Scholar
  33. Wiley RH (2013) Signal detection, noise, and the evolution of communication. In: Brumm H (ed) Animal communication and noise. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, pp 7–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Wiley RH, Richards DG (1982) Adaptations for acoustic communication in birds: sound transmission and signal detection. In: Kroodsma DH, Miller EH (eds) acoustic communication in birds, vol 1. Communication and behavior. Academic Press, New York, pp 131–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Yang X-J, Slabbekoorn H (2014) Timing vocal behavior: lack of temporal overlap avoidance to fluctuating noise levels in singing Eurasian wrens. Behav Process 108:131–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Yost WA (1994) Fundamentals of hearing. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry, Life Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Unit of Behavioral BiologyUniversity of ParmaParmaItaly

Personalised recommendations