Snake bioacoustics: toward a richer understanding of the behavioral ecology of snakes

Q Rev Biol. 2003 Sep;78(3):303-25. doi: 10.1086/377052.


Snakes are frequently described in both popular and technical literature as either deaf or able to perceive only groundborne vibrations. Physiological studies have shown that snakes are actually most sensitive to airborne vibrations. Snakes are able to detect both airborne and groundborne vibrations using their body surface (termed somatic hearing) as well as from their inner ears. The central auditory pathways for these two modes of "hearing" remain unknown. Recent experimental evidence has shown that snakes can respond behaviorally to both airborne and groundborne vibrations. The ability of snakes to contextualize the sounds and respond with consistent predatory or defensive behaviors suggests that auditory stimuli may play a larger role in the behavioral ecology of snakes than was previously realized. Snakes produce sounds in a variety of ways, and there appear to be multiple acoustic Batesian mimicry complexes among snakes. Analyses of the proclivity for sound production and the acoustics of the sounds produced within a habitat or phylogeny specific context may provide insights into the behavioral ecology of snakes. The relatively low information content in the sounds produced by snakes suggests that these sounds are not suitable for intraspecific communication. Nevertheless, given the diversity of habitats in which snakes are found, and their dual auditory pathways, some form of intraspecific acoustic communication may exist in some species.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics*
  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Body Constitution / physiology
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Movement / physiology
  • Snakes / anatomy & histology*
  • Snakes / physiology*
  • Sound