The function of Shrapnell’s membrane (pars flaccida; PF) in middle-ear mechanics is still an enigma, though numerous proposals have been put forward, e.g. protection of pars tensa, equalizing of middle-ear pressure, sound transmission, and the site of origin of otitis media. In this study the PF was studied in a mammal (the hooded seal) which exposes itself to extreme pressure differences (from 1 to 100 atmospheres) when diving.
Formaldehyde-fixed temporal bones obtained from newborn, one-year-old, and adult seals (three of each) were cleansed and decalcified in 10 per cent EDTA. The lateral wall of the middle-ear cavity, including the whole tympanic membrane with its bony surroundings, was then excised and photodocumented. Thin sections were cut parallel with, and perpendicular to, the handle of the malleus, stained with haematoxylin-eosin, toluidine blue or Giemsa stain and examined under a light microscope. One seal head was subjected to high resolution computerized tomography (HRCT) before sectioning. The PF was observed to be a narrow fissure measuring a maximum of 0.8 mm between processus brevis of the malleus and the notch of Rivinus in pars squamosa (pars tensa diameter 10–12 mm). It seems unlikely that the PF of the hooded seal participates in pressure equalization in the middle ear. The main function of the lateral wall of the attic, including the minimal PF, appears to be to protect the middle-ear ossicles and allow movement of the malleus.