Studies addressing structure-function relationships of the fish auditory system during development are sparse compared to other taxa. The Batrachoididae has become an important group to investigate mechanisms of auditory plasticity and evolution of auditory-vocal systems. A recent study reported ontogenetic improvements in the inner ear saccule sensitivity of the Lusitanian toadfish, Halobatrachus didactylus, but whether this results from changes in the sensory morphology remains unknown. We investigated how the macula and organization of auditory receptors in the saccule and utricle change during growth in this species. Inner ear sensory epithelia were removed from the end organs of previously PFA-fixed specimens, from non-vocal posthatch fry (<1.4 cm, standard length) to adults (>23 cm). Epithelia were phalloidin-stained and analysed for area, shape, number and orientation patterns of hair cells (HC), and number and size of saccular supporting cells (SC).
Saccular macula area expanded 41x in total, and significantly more (relative to body length) among vocal juveniles (2.3–2.9 cm). Saccular HC number increased 25x but HC density decreased, suggesting that HC addition is slower relative to epithelial growth. While SC density decreased, SC apical area increased, contributing to the epithelial expansion.
The utricule revealed increased HC density (striolar region) and less epithelial expansion (5x) with growth, contrasting with the saccule that may have a different developmental pattern due to its larger size and main auditory functions. Both macula shape and HC orientation patterns were already established in the posthatch fry and retained throughout growth in both end organs.
We suggest that previously reported ontogenetic improvements in saccular sensitivity might be associated with changes in HC number (not density), size and/or molecular mechanisms controlling HC sensitivity. This is one of the first studies investigating the ontogenetic development of the saccule and utricle in a vocal fish and how it potentially relates to auditory enhancement for acoustic communication.