Can Snakes Hear? (Hint: Yes)

Snakes are inscrutable and mysterious. That’s probably why so many people ask so many basic questions about their biology. (One I’ve run into a few times: do snakes have bones? The answer is yes, lots of them, but the question belies a confusion about what a snake is: they think it’s some variant of worm.)

Sometimes, though, the answer is complex, or incomplete because we don’t know yet. For example, last month, Andrew Durso looked at the science behind the question of whether snakes sleep, a question whose answer is made more complicated by snakes’ lack of eyelids. As it turns out, there hasn’t been a lot of work done on the subject (one EEG study with an African rock python). “So here’s what we know: snakes probably do sleep, perhaps most of the time, but we don’t really know when, for how long, how deeply, or whether or not they have paradoxical sleep, including dreaming.”

Now Andrew has posted another good question: can snakes hear? Now, those of us who know anything about snakes know that snakes don’t have external ears. It’s widely understood that snakes can feel ground vibrations, but airborne sounds? Much to my surprise, they can. This time there’s a bit more research. Snakes, it turns out, aren’t really deaf.

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.

Of course they don’t hear exactly the same way we do, because their inner and middle ears are structured differently. But now I’m wondering how much the snakes in our living room can hear the home theatre system. I’ve always assumed that they could feel the subwoofer, but it doesn’t look like they could hear it.