The anatomy of Latimeria chalumnae has figured prominently in discussions about tetrapod origins. While the gross anatomy of Latimeria is well documented, relatively little is known about its otic anatomy and ontogeny. To examine the inner ear and the otoccipital part of the cranium, a serial-sectioned juvenile coelacanth was studied in detail and a three-dimensional reconstruction was made.
The ear of Latimeria shows a derived condition compared to other basal sarcopterygians in having a connection between left and right labyrinths. This canalis communicans is perilymphatic in nature and originates at the transition point of the saccule and the lagena deep in the inner ear, where a peculiar sense end organ can be found.
In most gnathostomes the inner ears are clearly separated from each other. A connection occurs in some fishes, e.g. within the Ostariophysi. In the sarcopterygian lineage no connections between the inner ears are known except in the Actinistia. Some fossil actinistians show a posteriorly directed duct lying between the foramen magnum and the notochordal canal, similar to the condition in the ear of Latimeria, so this derived character complex probably developed early in actinistian history.
Because some features of the inner ear of Latimeria have been described as having tetrapod affinities, the problem of hearing and the anatomy of the otical complex in the living coelacanth has been closely connected to the question of early tetrapod evolution. It was assumed in the past that the structure found in Latimeria could exemplify a transitional stage in otic evolution between the fishlike sarcopterygians and the first tetrapods in a functional or even phylogenetic way.
Here the possibility is considered that the canalis communicans does not possess any auditory function but rather is involved in sensing pressure changes during movements involving the intracranial joint. Earlier hypotheses of a putative tympanic ear are refuted.
Since the discovery of the living coelacanth in 1938, many aspects of its morphology have been intensively studied, so that anatomically Latimeria chalumnae is one of the best known fishes in the world today. Nevertheless, some morphological features are still poorly documented, especially those regarding very sensitive soft tissue complexes like the sense organs. Especially the investigation of the inner ear meets with particular difficulties, since its main part consists of very thin membranous canals and compartments, easily destroyed or damaged by pressure changes when catching and pulling the animal from the deeper waters whereLatimeria lives. Therefore, so far regrettably little research on the ear of Latimeria has been done.