Snakes’ Hearing Abilities May Surprise You


| LAST UPDATE 02/19/2023

By Stanley Wickens
snake hearing ability research
Anup Shah via Getty Images

Put aside all assumptions and take a closer look at snakes - you'll soon realize that their keen senses go beyond what meets the eye. Forgo whispers, as these creatures don't possess any external ears to hear them; however, they still have remarkable hearing capabilities despite not having an ear in sight!

"Snakes are very vulnerable, timid creatures that hide most of the time, and we still have so much to learn about them," explains toxinologist Christina Zdenek from the University of Queensland in Australia. "Because snakes don't have external ears, people typically think they're deaf and can only feel vibrations through the ground and into their bodies." And while snakes may be known for their strong sense of smell and sight, recent research has unearthed an unexpected capability: Their hearing. Evidence suggests that the auditory skills of these slithering creatures are by no means feeble - a fact particularly highlighted in young pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus), who react more to visual stimuli than audible ones. Consequently, scientists have begun speculating just how much hearing plays into snake survival - many believing it is vital when alerting against predators or responding appropriately to environmental cues.

snake ears deaf hearing ability
CARL DE SOUZA / Contributor via Getty Images
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Zdenek and her colleagues conducted a fascinating study with 19 species of snakes to explore auditory responses inherited within the same genus. The experiment included various sounds between 0 - 450 Hertz through both vibrational transmissions via dirt and airborne only, allowing for an exploration of hearing tactilely as well as internally. Intriguingly, each group responded in different ways, yet those belonging to the same family showed similar reactions suggesting it's something that runs in their blood!

Despite being the largest python tested, weighing a hefty 5 kilograms (11 pounds), nocturnal woma pythons still have a few predators in their natural environment. They feed on much larger prey than its more venomous cousins who weigh anywhere between 40 grams and 2 kilograms - such as monitor lizards! However these smaller snakes are not so lucky when it comes to facing potential day-time dangers like raptors, monitors or feral cats. Research from Zdenek suggests that this could be due to an evolved response of avoidance behaviors triggered by airborne sounds. "We know very little about how most snake species navigate situations and landscapes around the world. But our study shows that sound may be an important part of their sensory repertoire," concludes Zdenek.

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