We all know that snakes hunt using several senses, including smell, sight, heat pits, and even detecting vibrations around them. But do snakes also have ears and can they use them to detect prey and hunt?
Today, we’ll discuss snakes’ hearing and how it plays into their lifestyle and hunting behavior.
Anatomy of a Snake’s Head and Ears
The snake’s head has evolved to become the animal’s primary offensive and defensive weapon. Snakes don’t have claws or legs to protect themselves from predators, so they evolved large and powerful mouths instead.
Their head is protected by thick scales, and the mandible is disconnected from the upper jaw with only a pair of elastic ligaments joining the bones. This allows the snake to open its mouth wider than any other animal.
But the truly fascinating evolutionary feature is the ear. Snakes have what we call vestigial ears. Their internal hearing structure contains all the elements that most other animals possess.
The real problem is the absence of the external ear. Because snakes don’t have external ears, they are unable to detect sounds the same way we do.
And the sounds that they do detect only represent a portion of what we can hear. So, it’s safe to say that humans have better hearing than snakes.
Until you realize that the snake’s hearing system has evolved in a different direction.
Because the snake is constantly crawling on the ground, it made sense for its auditory system to adapt to the animal’s lifestyle and its interactions with the environment.
So, the reptile’s internal hearing structure contains a columella or stapes, which connect to the jawbone. This explains why so many snakes rest their heads on the ground when hunting.
The vibrations caused by their prey reverberate through the soil and are detected by the snake’s jawbone and, consequently, the internal ear.
In other words, snakes can ‘hear’ vibrations. The same principle applies to sound transported via air vibrations. The reptile’s inner ear can detect those atmospheric vibrations, allowing the predator to establish the sound’s distance and direction quite accurately.
They don’t need all the information that we’re getting from sounds because snakes have a variety of other hunting senses to make up for the lack of hearing acuity.
Types of Sounds that Snakes Can Perceive
The snake’s auditory system’s evolution has been heavily influenced by the environment. This means that snakes can hear and recognize a variety of sounds that relate to their habitat.
Some of the sounds that reptiles can distinguish include the high pitch associated with birds chirping and leaves rustling, the low pitch sounds like footsteps, and the movement of larger animals.
Snakes have become so proficient at hunting and using their sound to detect their prey that they can even differentiate between prey and predator based on their hearing input.
This allows the reptiles to decide how to react in time, which is why you have so many difficulties finding snakes in the wild. They can sense you coming and go into hiding before you reach them.
Do All Snakes Have the Ability to Hear?
Yes and no. In theory, all snakes possess the ability to detect vibrations and changes in air pressure, but this doesn’t qualify as hearing in the traditional sense.
Snakes cannot detect the full range of sounds that animals with external ears can and they don’t need to. They rely on multiple other senses to pinpoint the position of the sound source.
The Significance of Hearing for Snakes
Snakes typically use their hearing for 3 benefits:
- Detect prey – The ability to sense air and ground vibrations is great when the prey is still not in sight. Once the snake can confirm the presence of the prey visually, it no longer relies on its hearing to give chase.
- Detect predators – Snakes can detect the proximity of predators via a variety of senses, and hearing is one of them. However, the hearing is only useful in some cases, not all of them. That’s because the snakes’ predators have evolved to circumvent their prey’s detection mechanisms. This is similar to how snakes have developed camouflage to approach their prey unseen. So, all reptiles rely rather on their visuals and their sense of smell to detect a predator’s approach.
- Navigate the environment – Everything produces sound around the snake, which allows the reptile to move more precisely in its habitat. The sound-based navigation isn’t as effective as echolocation in bats, but it fulfills pretty much the same role.
It’s important to note that snakes only rely on their hearing moderately. They much prefer the sense of sight and smell to keep track of what’s happening around them. The snake’s olfactory system is especially potent thanks to Jacobson’s organ located on the mouth palate. The snake whips its tongue in the air, catching scent particles, which then reach Jacobson’s organ, allowing the animal to identify the source of the scent.
It’s how snakes differentiate between their favorite prey and other animals that they cannot eat, whether they are predators or not.
Other Senses in Snakes
Snakes rely on several senses to navigate their habitat and detect prey and predators with high accuracy.
These are as follows:
- Smell – The sense of smell is the snakes’ primary sensorial experience. They rely on their smell above all else because it allows them to detect their prey even if they don’t have visuals of its precise location. This is why snakes swing their tongues in and out so frequently, especially when sensing danger. Their smell allows them to detect the type of animal that is nearby so they can act accordingly. Snakes possess specialized scent receptors on the mouth palate (Jacobson’s organs) that can ground and airborne particles. They can even lick various objects to gain information about their nature or track their prey if it touches them. The keen sense of smell allows snakes to locate prey in complete darkness when they cannot rely on their visuals too much.
- Touch – It’s only natural that a crawling animal would possess a keen sense of touch. Snakes can detect vibrations traversing through the ground, wood, or whatever material they’re sitting or crawling on. Not only that, but snakes can even approximate the distance between them and the vibration source based on the waves’ intensity. If you ever wondered why rattlesnakes begin to ring their tails before you even get to see them, that’s why.
- Temperature detection – A variety of snakes also possess pit organs or heat pits near their nostrils or along the jawline. These organs detect the body warmth produced by animals. This ability allows snakes to hunt in complete darkness, like a reptilian Predator, always ready to strike.
- Eyesight – You may have heard that snakes have poor vision, but this isn’t exactly true. Snakes actually possess specialized eyesight designed to do 2 important things: capture movement and detect prey in low-light conditions. This being said, snakes have poorer vision compared to mammals or other groups of animals. But they can still use their sight to detect prey and navigate their environment effectively.
Snakes cannot distinguish sounds the way we do, as their internal years are primarily evolved to detect sound vibrations. Their eyesight itself isn’t that proficient either, but this isn’t a problem.
Snakes rely on multiple senses to make sense of their environment and detect their prey with ease.
These animals have evolved over millions of years, which is evidence of their astounding adaptability and expertise in hunting and killing.