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Snakes Can Hear You Scream

menu_book picture_as_pdf bookChristina N. Zdenek Bushcraft Australia

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Snakes Can Hear You Scream

Text Christina N. Zdenek

54 | Bushwalk April 2023

The coastal taipan was one of 19 snake species used in our research. Christina Zdenek, Author provided

Our research, which included 19 different snakes from seven species, reveals that not only do snakes have airborne hearing, but that different species react differently to what they hear.

How snakes respond to airborne and ground-borne soundsAlthough seeing and tasting (the air) are the main ways snakes sense their environment, our study highlights that hearing still plays an important role in snakes’ sensory repertoire.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Snakes are susceptible to predators including monitor lizards, cats, dogs

and other snakes. Hearing is an important sense for both predator avoidance and injury avoidance (such as being trodden on).

For our experiments, we collaborated with the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Creative Practice to fit-out a soundproof room and test one snake at a time.

Using silence as our control, we played one of three sounds, each including a range of frequencies: 1–150 Hz, 150–300 Hz and 300–450 Hz. For comparison, the human voice range is about 100–250Hz, and birds chirp at about 8000 Hz.

In one previous study, researchers hung western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) in a steel mesh basket and observed their restricted behaviours in response to sound frequencies between 200 Hz and 400 Hz. In another, researchers surgically implanted electrodes into the brains of partially anaesthetised snakes, detecting electrical potentials in response to sound up to 600 Hz.

Hearing is an important sense for both predator avoidance and injury avoidance (such as being trodden on).



But our research is the first to investigate how multiple snake species respond to sounds in a space where they can move freely. We also used an accelerometer to detect whether the sounds produced ground vibrations. In this way we confirmed the snakes were indeed registering airborne sounds, and not just feeling ground vibrations.

Do snakes move toward or away from sound?Most of the snakes exhibited very different types of behaviours in sound trials compared to the control.

Woma pythons (Aspidites ramsayi) a non-venomous snake found throughout Australia’s arid interior significantly increased their movement in response to sound and actually approached it. They exhibited an interesting behaviour called “periscoping”, in which snakes raise the front third of their body in a manner that suggests curiosity.

In contrast, three other genera Acanthophis (death adders), Oxyuranus (taipans) and Pseudonaja (brown snakes) were more likely to move away from sound, signalling potential avoidance behaviour.

Death adders are ambush predators. They wait for their prey to come to them using the lure on their tail (which they wiggle to look like a worm), and they can’t travel quickly. So it makes sense they trended away from the sound. For them, survival means avoiding being trodden on by large vertebrates such as kangaroos, wombats or humans.

Brown snakes and taipans are active foragers that rapidly pursue their prey during the day. This means they may be vulnerable to daytime

predators such as raptors. In our experiments, both of these snakes appeared to have acute senses. Taipans in particular were likely to display defensive and cautious behaviours in response to sound.

Can snakes hear us?Our study further debunks the myth that snakes are deaf. They can hear just not as well as you or I. Snakes can only hear low frequencies, roughly below the 600 Hz mark, whereas most of us can hear a much wider range. Snakes probably hear muffled versions of what we do.

So, can snakes hear us? The frequency of the human voice is about 100–250 Hz, depending on sex. The sounds we played in our trials included these frequencies, and were played at a distance of 1.2 metres from the snakes at 85 decibels. This is about the amplitude of a loud voice.

The snakes in our study responded to this sound, and many significantly so. So it’s probably safe to say snakes can hear people speaking loudly or screaming. That doesn’t mean they can’t hear someone talking (a normal conversation is about 60 decibels) we just didn’t test sound at this noise level.

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 15 February 2023.

Christina N. ZdenekPost-doctoral Research Fellow, Venom Evolution Lab, The University of Queensland

Snakes can only hear low frequencies, roughly below the 600 Hz mark..


56 | Bushwalk April 2023