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VIDEO: Python Reveals the Evolution of Hearing to UC Students

Students taking a University Honors course get a slithery sensation during a live animal demonstration tracing the progression of hearing through the ages.

Date: 2/10/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre (Video by Jay Yocis)

UC ingot  
University Honors Seminar features "Squash," a Burmese python.

“He’s coming your way. Now appearing at a table near you!”

It took four people to fully unwind “Squash” in all his glory across several tables, as students in a University of Cincinnati Honors seminar got a close-up view of how a 17-foot, 100-pound Burmese python uses its hearing – the first in a series of live animal demonstrations this quarter to examine how hearing has evolved through the ages.

The course, led by Pete Scheifele – UC assistant professor of communications sciences & disorders and director of UC’s FETCH~LAB, Bioacoustics and Canine Audiology Clinic – is part of UC’s year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology, “On the Origin of Species,” and its role in the development of modern science.

Over the academic quarter, the 17 Honors students are exploring why scientists now believe birds are descendants of dinosaurs, why the hearing and vocal production of some animals is more fine-tuned than others, and why the human ear doesn’t perform as well as the hearing of other animals.

“This is going to be awesome,” breathed a student sitting in the back of the room, considerably away from Squash and his handler, exotic animal trainer Lesa Scheifele, the wife of the UC assistant professor who is bringing UC to the forefront of the research of bioacoustics. Squash stuck out his tongue in response.

As students came up for a closer look, they saw first-hand why a snake’s hearing is different than that of a human. “Snake ears are internal,” explained Associate Professor Pete Scheifele. “They use their jaw for hearing vibrations instead of hearing sounds through the air.”

That was an observation that fascinated 20-year-old Jeff Olberding of Delhi, a third-year biological sciences major. “I’m so used to thinking about hearing from a human perspective, so a snake’s bone-conducting jaw hearing – designed to feel vibrations and to ultimately save them from trampling elephants, for example, was something I had never thought of.”

University Honors Seminar

“I love the open dialogue of this course and being able to ask a lot of questions,” adds 20-year-old Alexandra Horenberg, a third-year double major in fine art, College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) and biopsychology in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences (A&S). “I decided I wanted to be Jack Hanna after he came to my high school, but I also wanted to pursue art. UC gave me an opportunity to pursue both fields, and this seminar has given me a wonderful opportunity to observe animals up close,” says Horenberg, who’s from Potomac, Md.

UC’s Honors Program enriches the educational experience of UC’s academically talented students through coursework and out-of-the-classroom activities – emphasizing the Honors themes of community engagement, global studies, leadership, research and creative arts. With an emphasis on experiential learning, the University Honors Program serves more than 1,600 UC students representing every undergraduate college on campus.

During this session, in addition to Squash, students got a look at Hari, a boa constrictor, and Gus, a Buff Cochin rooster – a Chinese ornamental chicken. “He was so comfortable with humans,” Olberding said, after his encounter with Gus. “We could move aside his feathers and see the ear openings on this bird. Because they’re vocal, unlike snakes, we learned that the birds have holes on the sides of their head to use for hearing,” Olberding said.

Jeff Olberding
Jeff Olberding

In future class meetings, these Honors students will also come across an iguana, a tarantula, a scorpion and some mammals. They’ll also explore the noisy underwater activity of marine mammals and find that their hearing differs significantly from that of the human ear.

“Animal ears and the sounds that they make have adapted over time,” Assistant Professor Pete Scheifele says. “Obviously, the big adaptations have occurred to help animals survive prey or to enable predators, and they have also adapted to fit the environment in which the animal has to live, whether they’re ground or water animals. So, all of these systems have had to evolve to accommodate the acoustic environment that they’re exposed to.”

Pete Scheifele
Pete Scheifele

The Honors students will discover why bioacoustics is gaining interest in science research, and how UC is at the forefront of this field of study. As UC researchers study animal vocalization and signs of stress in environments, these voice signals could indicate how noise and environment affects the productivity and life-quality of animals, which could result in changing the design of habitats ranging from zoos to aquariums to dog kennels, as well as generate future research into lowering noise levels to increase productivity on the American farm.

The Honors seminar, “Hearing and Sound Production through the Ages: Jurassic Acoustics,” is one of a number of courses underway at UC examining through classroom instruction the impact of Charles Darwin. Throughout the year-long celebration of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of “On the Origin of Species,” UC will be exploring the many contemporary applications of

  • Darwin’s theory of evolution by common descent
  • The breadth of Darwin’s research and its ramifications
  • Darwin’s contribution as a cornerstone of modern science
  • The multiple applications of evolutionary theory throughout UC research

University Honors Program

Darwin Sesquicentennial – Evolution: Evidence & Impact

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