Historically, snakes were thought to be deaf. It’s a plausible theory. After all, they don’t have ears. Right? Well, as it turns out, you don’t need external ears to hear. Internal ears will do just fine.
If you are a proud owner of one or more snakes, you might be wondering if listening to music will affect your slithering friends.
So, is loud music bad for snakes?
Snakes rely on vibrations in their external environment to be able to hear. Vibrations are picked up by small bones, columella, in their inner ear, which are directly linked with the lower jaw. Loud music alone won’t necessarily affect snakes, however, loud music with low frequencies or bass can be bad for snakes, causing stress.
If you have a pet snake and regularly listen to loud music in the same room, you may want to read on. This one’s for you.
How Do Snakes Hear?
Most species of mammals have external ears that funnel sound through the ear canal, and into the eardrum. The incoming sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which starts a domino effect leading to electrical signals sent to the brain, producing the sound we are familiar with.
The process is a lot more complicated than what I described, but hey, we’re here to talk about snakes, not mammals.
But how many snakes have you seen that have external ears?
Well, unless you’ve been playing around with some of Mother Earth’s fungal products, the answer should be zero.
So, how do snakes hear?
As well as lacking external ears, snakes also lack eardrums.
However, snakes do have small holes on the side of their head which act as ear openings and share some similar characteristics with the anatomy of the mammalian ear.
The smallest known bone in the mammalian body, the stapes, is found in the inner ear and has a homologous counterpart within the reptilian body – the columella, which is also found in the inner ear of a snake.
This small bone differs from the mammalian stapes as it connects directly to the lower jaw of the snake. Whether a snake is slithering along, or resting while they digest their last meal, most of the time, the jawbone of the snake is resting on the floor.
Vibrations on the ground – be it from the footsteps of a potential predator or the tantalizing treat of prey – cause vibrations in the jawbone, stimulating the columella, which relays a signal to the inner ear.
Snakes rely on vibrations to hear. Loud music gives off a lot of vibrations. See where I’m going with this?
What Can A Snake Hear?
Pitch, or the degree of highness or lowness of a tone, is measured in Hertz (Hz).
The lowest range of a human ear is around 20 Hz, something comparable to that of organ bass pedals. The highest range a human with exceptional hearing can detect is around 20,000 Hz, about 5 times higher than the highest note of a piano.
Sounds that produce higher hertz subsequently produce fewer vibrations. As such, snakes can only hear low frequencies. Scientists estimate the range of snake hearing to be between 50 – 1,000 Hz. Of course, this does depend on the species and the habitat they live in.
What About Airbourne Vibrations?
The columella, which is connected to the lower jaw, which is resting on the floor, can pick up vibrations. That makes sense, right?
But, what about soundwaves through the air? Can snakes detect airborne vibrations?
A team of researchers, using a suspended speaker system, discovered that soundwaves traveling through the air caused vibrations within the skull of the snake.
Using electrodes attached to the head of the snake, neuron activity between the inner ear and brain was measured. Researchers found that nerve pulses were strongest when frequencies between 80 – 160 Hz were played.
The initial experiment used just one species of snake, the ball python. However, further studies investigating snake hearing used a bigger sample size of 19 snakes, including 6 different species of snake, across five genera.
The findings yielded the same results. Hearing, despite previous hypotheses, plays an important role in snake senses.
The majority of the snakes in the study moved away from the sound source, suggesting avoidance behavior. Other species increased defensive displays, again supporting the idea that snakes feel the vibrations of potential oncoming predators.
The team also discovered that certain species of snakes were able to detect airborne vibrations via somatic hearing. In other words, vibrations that came from the air, as opposed to the ground, could be detected by the whole body.
Spinal nerves pick up vibrations from the skin, causing another small bone, the quadrate bone, to vibrate. The movements are transferred to the inner ear, where signals are then sent to the brain.
The above video shows a snake reacting to airborne sound!
So, Does Loud Music Affect Snakes?
If you’ve ever been to a live concert, or had a one-person jamming session in the car, you’ll notice just how loud the music is.
You would have also noticed the vibrations throughout your body. This is a result of a process known as resonance. This phenomenon occurs when an object vibrates near the resonant frequency of a second object, causing the second object to also vibrate.
Loud music with low frequencies or bass causes the vibration of surrounding air particles. When we, or a snake in this instance, is too close to the source of loud music, it too will vibrate.
While loud music can cause significant adverse health effects in humans, such as hearing loss through damaged cells within the inner ear, it is the low frequency of the loud music that can cause damage to snakes.
As snakes do not have eardrums, noise does not affect snakes in the same way it does to mammals. However, as loud music typically produces a lot of vibrations, snakes will most likely feel stressed and anxious.
As we discussed earlier, snakes use vibrations to detect predators. In a captive environment with limited space to flee or hide, such as that of a vivarium, relentless vibrations will cause stress-related behaviors. Prolonged exposure to vibrations from loud noises may cause stress-related illnesses.
Can Snakes Handle Loud Music?
As we’ve discussed, snakes do not have external ears to detect sound. Instead, they rely on vibrations caused by low-frequency noises.
If you were to blast your favorite punk rock band at full volume, your snake wouldn’t be best pleased.
However, not all loud noises affect snakes.
Take the art of Indian snake charming, for example.
Most of us are familiar with the practice: a snake, often an Indian cobra, lifts its head out of a traditional wicker basket to the sound of the pungi – a type of reed instrument with a flute attachment.
But wait a minute. Snakes can’t hear like we do.
The pungi has a relatively high tone and, as such, a snake will not be able to detect the frequency – even if it is played really loud.
Instead, the hypnotic movements displayed by the snake are most likely a result of the swaying motion of the “charmer”. The bulbous pungi could be seen as a threat by the snake – either as a potential predator, or another cobra (cobras are territorial and can be aggressive).
The snake sways in a defensive posture to mimic the swaying motion of the pungi.
Mythbusters, here I come.
Snakes lack external ears and ear drums. However, this does not mean they are deaf.
Within the ear openings, which can be found on the side of the snake’s head, a complex inner ear can be found. Vibrations from the surrounding environment are detected by small bones and nerves, which send signals to the brain.
Loud music with a frequency of more than 1000 Hz is outside the hearing range of a snake. However, loud music with a low frequency and low bass can negatively affect a snake’s health.
Snakes associate vibrations with potential predators, as well as prey, and will change their behavior accordingly. Prolonged exposure to excessive low-frequency noises and vibrations may cause stress-related illnesses.
So next time you want to crank up the volume to the Sex Pistols, just make sure your pet snake isn’t around.