Vibrating Skulls Help Snakes Hear
by Sarah C.P. Williams
When a rattlesnake shakes its tail, does it hear the rattling? Scientists have long struggled to understand how snakes, which lack external ears, sense sounds. Now, a new study shows that sound waves cause vibrations in a snake’s skull that are then “heard” by the inner ear.
"There’s been this enduring myth that snakes are deaf," says neurobiologist Bruce Young of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who was not involved in the new research. "Behavioral studies have suggested that snakes can in fact hear, and now this work has gone one step further and explained how."
In humans, sound waves traveling through the air hit the eardrum, causing the movement of tiny bones and vibrations of tiny hair cells in the inner ear. These vibrations are then translated into nerve impulses that travel to the brain. Snakes have fully formed inner ear structures but no eardrum. Instead, their inner ear is connected directly to their jawbone, which rests on the ground as they slither. Previous studies have shown that vibrations traveling through the ground—such as the footsteps of predators or prey—cause vibrations in a snake’s jawbone, relaying a signal to the brain via that inner ear…
(read more: Science NOW) (image: Christian Christiensen)