Are Snakes Deaf?

As they don't have any eardrums, snakes were long believed to be deaf. This isn't exactly the case and here you can find out why.
Are Snakes Deaf?

Last update: 23 June, 2021

Are snakes deaf? When posed a question like this we automatically think of a cobra dancing to the sound of a flute and snakes following the sinuous movement of a musical instrument. Science brings us the answer to this question!

Like many things in the scientific world, the answer is usually found somewhere between the two poles. In this article, we’ll delve into the possible sense of hearing of these animals and, as we do so, we’ll have a brief look at the auditory system of snakes. Don’t miss it!

Are snakes deaf?

The reality is that snakes can hear, but there are differences between them and other reptiles. For quadruped reptiles, the eardrum transmits air vibrations to the inner ear, causing the subjective sensation of hearing, as in humans and other mammals. Snakes, however, lack this membrane.

This fact led people to think at the time that snakes are deaf. However, experts later showed that they are capable of hearing, as well as perceiving vibrations in the ground. They do it by using their jaw and their long bodies.

Although they don’t have eardrums, a snake’s inner ear is well enough developed to interpret the vibrations that come through the ground as they reverberate in the skull. Thanks to this, snakes are able to better capture low-frequency sound waves.

The hearing range of snakes is from 100 to 700 Hertz. The human ear is capable of hearing from 20 to 20,000 Hertz.

Do snakes hear sounds?

How do snakes hear?

Although they’re capable of hearing sounds, it’s also true that a snake’s ability to capture air vibrations is more limited than that of other reptiles. However, evolution has provided these animals with a very useful additional strategy.

Snakes can, of course, crawl, and this is a great advantage when it comes to capturing the vibrations that travel through the ground. The mechanoreceptors distributed throughout their bodies are responsible for sending information to the brain about these signals. This is tremendously useful for the snake when it comes to locating prey and hazards.

Imagine a stone falling into a pond. If the rock were its prey, the snake would be able to locate it, depending on where the ripples in the water reach it from.

The auditory system of snakes: characteristics and operation

Evolution has denied snakes an outer ear and eardrum, but, as you’ve seen, this doesn’t deprive them of a sense of hearing. Their inner ear is similar to that of other vertebrates, with the additional ability to process the vibrations that reach them through the ground, not only through the air. This is known as ‘somatic hearing’.

In their middle ear, snakes have a bone called the colummella auris, connected by tissue to the inner ear, the purpose of which is to vibrate the fluid in the inner ear. This fluid activates sensory cells – called cochlear cells – which send the necessary information to the brain.

In addition to this, the snake’s jaw has undergone a very useful modification in order to capture the sounds that travel through the ground: it’s divided into two pieces, called hemimandibles. Their function is to detect the location of the sound, as they’ll send signals to the brain with an asymmetric rhythm, based on the origin of the vibration.

A poisonous snake on a black background.

Snakes – and, in general, all reptiles – surprise us with every new fact we learn about them. They’re such ancient creatures, and the adaptations that have taken place in their microevolution are so full of creativity!

They may not be as adorable animals as many others that developed hair, but they’re certainly worth studying. However, if you want to get in a snake’s good books, the music of a flute won’t be of much help!

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  • Christensen, C. B., Christensen-Dalsgaard, J., Brandt, C., & Madsen, P. T. (2012). Hearing with an atympanic ear: good vibration and poor sound-pressure detection in the royal python, Python regius. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(2), 331-342.
  • Young, B. A. (2003). Snake bioacoustics: toward a richer understanding of the behavioral ecology of snakes. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 78(3), 303-325.