Research shows that approximately half of the population feel “anxious” about snakes, and a whopping three percent of the population meet the diagnostic criteria for snake phobia (Polak et al., 2016). Is it their skin? Is it that they have no legs and thus slither? Is it the tongue? Is it their ears?
Wait—do snakes have ears?
A myth has long been held that snakes are deaf. Experts understand that snakes can feel sound vibrations through the ground. Recent research demonstrates that snakes also use hearing to help them interpret the world, and they are not deaf to airborne sound. Snakes are limited, however, to only being able to hear frequencies below 600 Hz.
Christina Zdenek, PhD, and colleagues (2023) recently published a paper investigating hearing in 19 different snakes from seven species. Their results conclude that snakes do have airborne hearing. Seeing and tasting (that tongue!) are the primary ways in which snakes sense their environment—but this study demonstrates that hearing still plays an important role in a snake’s sensory repertoire.
Using silence as a control, one of three sounds were played, each including a range of frequencies: 1–150Hz, 150–300Hz and 300–450Hz. An accelerometer was also used to detect whether the sounds produced ground vibrations to confirm the snakes were hearing airborne sounds and not just feeling ground vibrations.
Further results revealed that different species react differently to different sounds. The snakes, either moved towards or away from the sound, depending on their predatory behavior or avoidance.
Finally, this research confirms that snakes can hear humans. The frequency of the human voice is approximately 100–250Hz, depending on the talker. The sounds played in these trials included these frequencies, and were played approximately four feet from the snakes, at 85 dB. All the snakes in this study responded at these frequencies. It is safe to report that snakes can hear people speaking loudly or screaming, but also may be able to hear us at conversational levels.
They can hear us. Even if you don’t like them, please don’t insult them, at least not near them.
Polak J, Sedlackova K, Nacar D, Landova E, Frynta D. (2016) Fear the serpent: A psychometric study of snake phobia. Psychiatry Res 242:163-168.
Zdenek C. (2023) Snakes can hear you scream, new research reveals. The Conversation. (Accessed March 1, 2023).
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