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Do snakes have ears? - Can snakes taste, smell, and hear?

This is a question that kept 11-year-old Zach up at night. Luckily, adult Zach can provide an answer. Do you know what keeps adult Zach up at night? You not subscribing right now!

Black-tailed Rattlesnake ready to strike
Black-tailed Rattlesnake ready to strike

Some people hate snakes. Some people love snakes. This post is for those in the middle. Those who are a little snake-curious. If looking at snakes makes you shudder, you probably turned around the moment you opened this post up. For those who continue, you are a brave soul. Go you.

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How do snakes hear?

If you came here for the quick answer, here it is. Snakes DO have ears, but they DO NOT have external ear openings. Say what? It means they have apparati that function as ears, but we cannot see the opening we would expect airborne vibrations to enter the head through. Instead, snakes use their limited internal ear to 'feel' vibrations through their jaw. These vibrations can come through the ground AND the air. This means that snakes do not hear very well when we compare them to ourselves. However, they make up for this lack of ability with a different heightened sense.


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Take snake photos from a safe distance with the Nikon Coolpix P1000!


How do snakes smell?

Snakes have nostrils, but these nostrils are not used for chemosensing. Instead, these nostrils are used for breathing, allowing the snake to keep its mouth closed as it moves along the ground. Instead, the forked tongue acts exclusively as the chemosensory organ. They flick this forked tongue out, and then snakes collect the 'smells' on the tongue's surface. Once the tongue is pulled back in, the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson's organ) detects these chemicals and sends signals to the brain. Voila, SMELL!

Can snakes taste?

This question relates back to the previous question. There are no tastebuds on the tongue of the snake, but if the prey the snake is eating transfers chemicals onto the surface of the tongue or vomeronasal organ, then a form of 'taste' occurs. It is not the same as we understand our taste, but it is still a form of 'tasting.' Now, would you trust the taste of a snake? Probably not. I would actually hope they do not have to taste much when consuming prey, as they eat sooo many rodents. And rat burgers are just not that good. Trust me.

Prairie Rattlesnake "smelling" the air
Prairie Rattlesnake "smelling" the air

Can snakes see?

Snakes do have eyes, and yes, they can see with those eyes. However, snake eyes lack certain structures that other organisms, like lizards, have. Their eyes are used mainly for foraging and defense, and they rely on 'smell' and touch for much of their prey and mate detection. Some snakes, like the pit vipers, can also 'see' using their infrared receptors on the front of their face. These receptors do not see heat, but instead, they detect changes in infrared radiation as small as 0.003 degrees Celsius! WOW! These snakes can actually superimpose this infrared image over the visual images provided by their eyes. This creates a unique visual for snakes to use while hunting. They can get precise directional cues from this combination. The snakes that do not have visible pits can still detect infrared radiation through the skin on their head, but it is not as impressive.


Learn your venomous snake identification with the US Guide to Venomous Snakes!

Learn how to be snake safe!


How to prevent snakebite

Want to learn more about being safe around snakes? Check out this post on venomous snake safety! The soundest advice anyone can offer on snake safety is to leave snakes alone and not be careless in areas snakes like to be. However, here are a few more specific tips:

  • Wear appropriate over-the-ankle hiking boots, thick socks, and loose-fitting long pants. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas. If you typically wear low-top boots or shoes, then wearing snake gaiters may be the safest solution for you.

  • When hiking, stick to well-used trails, if possible.

  • Avoid tall grass, weeds, heavy underbrush, and rocky outcrops where snakes may hide during the day.

  • Look where you step!

  • Do not place your hands where you cannot see.

  • Use a rechargeable headlamp or flashlight at night!

  • If a fallen tree or large rock is in your path, step up first, then look over where you will step down.

  • When climbing rocks or gathering firewood, watch where your hands will go. If you have a woodpile, remove logs carefully.

  • Check out stumps or logs before sitting down.

  • Do not turn over rocks or logs. If you must move a rock or log, use heavy gloves or a snake hook to pull it towards you. Pulling it towards you allows a path of escape away from your body/feet.

  • All venomous snakes can swim. Be aware of what may appear to be a "stick" in water. However, many nonvenomous snakes live in and around water.

  • Avoid approaching any snake.

  • If you hear a warning rattle, move away from the area and do not make sudden or threatening movements in the direction of the snake.

  • Not all venomous snakes can warn before they strike!

  • Do not handle a freshly killed snake.

Bullsnake - Note the lack of ear openings
Bullsnake - Note the lack of ear openings

Snake Safety Equipment

If you came here for just the answers about snake senses, you can move along to another blog post! However, if you ever deal with snakes or work in snake country, you should be prepared with the proper equipment.

Books about Snakes

Do you have a desire to learn more about snakes? The three books below are three of our favorites to increase your knowledge base for snakes. The two field guides (last two) are great for local reptile and amphibian identification, depending on your location.


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