Do Snakes Have Ears?
Q. While looking at the snakes in the Aquarium exhibit, my son asked, “Where are their ears?” Do snakes have ears?
A. A good question, with an interesting answer. Snakes don’t have outer ears, but they do have inner ear parts connected to bones and muscles in their lower jaw. This enables them to “hear” in their own way.
As we know, sound travels via waves. In humans, sound waves vibrate our ear drums, and we hear the results. A snake’s hearing works much the same, except instead of hearing sound waves a snake “hears” the vibrations.
Anything that moves across the ground creates vibrations. When the vibrations reach the snake, they’re picked up by the bones and muscles next to the inner ear. This allows the snake to “hear” movement. And, because of the elasticity of the snake’s jaw, vibrations can even be localized to help snakes determine which direction the “sound,” or vibration, is coming from. As far as hearing people talking or birds calling, snakes usually don’t react, because in that sense they don’t “hear” it.
Snakes also have other unique senses. Because most don’t have good eyesight, they rely more on smell to zero in on prey. When a snake flicks its forked tongue, it’s taking in odor particles and transferring them to two fluid-filled sacs on the roof of its mouth. Called Jacobson’s organs, these sacs lead to a second, smaller olfactory chamber. The flicking tongue is used only to assist in this process. One could easily mistake the tongue flicking as a tasting technique, but actually it’s more of a smelling maneuver.
Some snakes rely more strongly on heat sensors to locate prey. Heat sensing is especially keen in pit vipers, such as cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes. Vipers have special pits on their face that contain cells to pick up even the tiniest bit of heat. These super-sensing serpents can figure out the size of a warm body and its location, even if unsuspecting prey is camouflaged and remains immobile. A snake with pits simply goes for the heat. Snakes are carnivorous and swallow their prey whole.
The state operates three public aquariums: one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island. The aquariums are administered by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and are designed to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environment.
For more information about the Aquariums, visit www.ncaquariums.com, or call (800) 832-FISH.
Sherry White works in the public affairs office of the N.C. Aquariums.
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