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How do snakes hear ssssounds?

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing |

A long, long time ago, before the Internet was invented, I would take my kids to the library whenever they asked a question I couldn’t answer. This accomplished two things: 1) I knew the librarian would appreciate the challenge in helping me find answers to obscure questions and 2) the kids would inevitably spend the next few hours picking out a stack of books to take home and read for the next two weeks. 

Do you know if snakes have ears? Or ladybugs,
for that matter? Discover fun facts about bugs 
and lightning and how they're related to hearing
health!

With Spring Break right around the corner, I’ve dusted off some of my favorite “kid” questions for you to share with your little ones. And, because I write for Healthy Hearing, I’ve added a little hearing health information to the answers.

What do ladybugs eat?

Lady bugs eat aphids. Aphids are also known as plant lice, which explains why ladybugs are such a welcome sight in the garden.

If my son had asked me if ladybugs have ears, I would have told him – after finding a book on ladybug anatomy in the card catalog – that unlike some insects, ladybugs do not have ears. They use their antenna to smell, taste and feel their way to their food.

Those insects who do hear use tympanal organs, which work a lot like human eardrums. A tympanal organ is a membrane stretched over a frame, situated over an air-filled cavity. When the tympanal organ vibrates, the vibration is detected by the chordotonal organ which translates the sound into a nerve impulse. Grasshoppers and crickets, cicadas, butterflies and moths are examples of insects which use tympanal organs to hear.

What is lightning?

I knew lightning was a natural electrical discharge, but I didn’t really know why it occurred until my son asked me this question and I was forced to look it up (So much for retaining what I learned in middle school science class.).

My son would’ve been interested to know that the same type of electrical impulse takes place right inside his own ears. The outside of our ears is called the pinna and funnels sound into our ear canal. As the vibrations reach the middle ear, our sensory hair cells translate them into electrical impulses, which are sent along the auditory nerve to the brain for interpretation into recognizable sound.

FYI, moms: this explanation does not pertain to selective listening, a completely different phenomenon which happens randomly and without warning typically when you’re asking your kids if they’ve cleaned their room.

Do snakes have ears?

This is the question that started this article in the first place. 

Interestingly, snakes do not have external ears or ear drums but they can hear. How? It’s all in the vibrations the reptiles pick up through their jaws. These vibrations travel to a cochlear mechanism in their auditory system. Much like the process that occurs in the inner ears of human beings, these vibrations are converted to electrical impulses and transmitted to the brain.

Here’s another cool fact: researchers believe snakes can hear in stereo. Since their jaw moves independently on both sides, each side of the jaw transmits sounds to two different cochlear mechanisms.

Even though the Internet has made information like this so much more accessible, I must admit how much I miss those hours I spent with my kids at the local library. This spring break, I hope you get the opportunity to spend time with your kiddos in a place where you can listen to the way their inquisitive little minds work — and maybe even sneak in a few fun facts about hearing in the process.

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