Last month I wrote about whether snakes sleep, a topic that is far more interesting than the minuscule amount of research devoted to it. Another common question is whether snakes can hear, since they don't have external ear openings. The short answer is yes, snakes can hear, but the long answer is (as usual) more complicated. Happily, there is a good deal of research on this question, including a recent review. In general, many popular sources and some scientific ones have incorrectly claimed snakes to be deaf, whereas a plethora of behavioral, neurological, and physiological experiments, particularly those performed by the eminent Princeton hearing researcher Ernest Glen Wever in the 1960s and 70s, by UC-San Diego neurologist Peter Hartline in the 1970s, and by herpetologist and anatomist Bruce Young from the 1990s to the present, have conclusively shown that snakes can detect and respond to sounds.
|Anatomy of the human ear
|Micro-CT scan of a ball python's skull and ear.
Red: mandible; dark blue: quadrate;
green: columella; purple/light blue: inner ear chambers
From Christensen et al. 2012
Click here for an interactive 3-D model.
|Diagram of the ear of a watersnake (Nerodia)
Modified from Wever 1978
The length and arrangement of the auditory hairs in the inner ears of snakes appears to be fairly uniform across species, at least relative to the variation seen in lizards, which can have very different auditory hair anatomy among families and often even among closely-related species. Snakes mostly have simple, tuatara-like papillae, which suggests that they have secondarily lost a more complex type of auditory organ. This might be due to the aquatic or burrowing lifestyle of their ancestors and/or to specializations of their lower jaws in response to their unusual eating habits. There is some variation in inner ear anatomy (and presumably in hearing capacity) among snakes: burrowing snakes have the longest papillae, arboreal snakes the shortest, and terrestrial snakes have papillae of intermediate length. Many mammals have over 10,000 auditory hair cells, whereas most snakes have only about 250 (although acrochordids have nearly 1,500). Supporting cells of unclear function are relatively more numerous in snakes and these cells have ultrastructural features that suggest that they are more specialized than those of other reptiles.
|Hearing range of various animals, not including snakes
The louder and lower frequency airborne sounds are, the more easily a snake can detect them. This isn't entirely unlike our own hearing—although we do hear high-pitched airborne sounds directly more easily than snakes do, we also rely on amplification provided by our ear drums, inner ear hairs, and other parts of our bodies. Studies have shown that snakes can hear sounds in the 80-600 Hz range optimally, with some species hearing sounds up to 1000 Hz (for comparison, the range of human hearing is from 20-20,000 Hz). This means that a snake could hear middle C on a piano, as well as about one octave above and two below, but neither the lowest key (which is 27.5 Hz) nor the highest (which is 4186 Hz). The average human voice is around 250 Hz, which means that snakes can hear us talking as well. Of course, there is likely a lot of variation among snake species, and the hearing of most species has not been examined, so these are generalizations.
Use the player above to hear how the airborne parts of Led Zeppelin's classic "Good Times, Bad Times" would sound to a snake. Parts of the song below 80 Hz (some bass & drums) or above 600 Hz (almost all guitar, vocals, and cymbals) have been muted. This doesn't include their sensitivity to the groundborne vibration parts of the song, which you could simulate by turning the bass on your speakers all the way up.
|Audibility curves for living reptiles, including birds (left). The lower
the curve, the quieter a sound can be detected at a given frequency.
You can see that snakes cannot hear very quiet sounds, but
otherwise are not that much worse than other reptiles
(although their hearing sucks compared to, say, owls).
Note the different y-axes. From Dooling et al. 2000.
What do snakes do with their hearing? Unlike frogs, birds, and insects, snakes don't seem to use sound for communication with each other. Although many snakes hiss and some use tail rattling, growling, scale rubbing, or cloacal popping to send messages to their would-be predators, these sounds are mostly above 2,500 Hz, so the snakes themselves cannot hear them. Some species are capable of producing sounds whose frequency overlaps with their hearing range, such as the loud, robust hisses of pinesnakes and gophersnakes (Pituophis), the bizarre and intimidating growling sounds of king cobras (Ophiophagus), and the famous rattles of some large rattlesnakes (Crotalus). Some people have suggested that rattlesnakes find their hibernacula by following the rattling sounds of other rattlesnakes, but this idea has been disproven because the power output of rattling is insufficient to serve as a long-distance signal, and playback experiments have not yielded a behavioral response to rattling.
Snakes might eavesdrop on the alarm calls of other, more vocal animals, as some lizards do with bird alarm calls, but probably not since most of these calls are between 2,500 and 10,000 Hz, well above their optimal frequency range. Most likely, snakes use their hearing to monitor their environment for sounds produced by approaching predators or prey, many of which are ground-borne vibrations. Snakes can hear in stereo and can use their hearing to determine the directionality and thereby the sources of sounds. One genus of snakes that probably relies quite heavily on vibration to hunt are Saharan sand vipers (Cerastes). These snakes ambush lizards and rodents from a position partially or completely buried in sand. Experiments have shown that their reliance on chemosensing and thermal cues was minimal and that, although snakes with their eyes obscured had altered strike kinematics, they were still able to capture prey.