Snake Sense

The way a snake is aware of us, other animals, and the environment in general is vastly and intriguingly different than the way in which we humans sense our world. Some senses mammals rely greatly on, such as eyesight, are almost unimportant in the eyes of a serpent but they make up for this with more reliance on other sources, some we wouldn’t even consider.

How is it that snakes can hear you coming before you can even take notice of them without external ears? Surprisingly hearing is one of the most vital senses to a snake. Although they do not have ears that can be seen, snakes do have ears and use them to their utmost ability. The internal ears of a snake pick up on airborne vibrations in low frequencies, but this is not the only way a snake can hear. Snakes can and rely mostly on hearing through their jaws. Vibrations transmitted through the ground are felt through a snake’s quadrate bone, or place where lower jaw and skull connect. The sound is then passed on through the middle ear to be processed in the inner ear. When you think about it, this is a great adaptation for an animal that lives its life on the ground.

A favorite serpent-ism of mine is the way they smell/taste. Ever wonder what a snake is doing with their incessant tongue flicking? Although they do have nostrils like all tetrapods (four footed animals), they rely on these holes to breathe and not at all to smell. They use their forked tongue to taste the airborne particles and tell what is nearby. Information gathered from the tongue through the air is brought to the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of a snake’s mouth. It is here where the smell is broken down and the snake can tell what it is they’ve run into. But what about the tongue’s forked appearance? Well the Jacobson’s organ has two slots where each part of the tongue can fit into; if the object being smelled is more on one side in reference to the snake then that side of the tongue will have a stronger scent.

The most unique way a snake perceives what is around it is by using their sixth sense. The boids and pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads use heat receptors to detect anything warm blooded in their premises. As the name implies these snakes have pits between their nostrils and eyes, that are able to pick up on temperature changes using infrared rays. The pits have two chambers; the internal chamber is obviously the temperature of the snake but the temperature of outside chamber changes when close by to a warm blooded creature. This sixth sense is accurate to the point where snakes can detect a temperature change of 0.002° Celsius!

So next time you see a snake remember how fascinating these jaw-hearing, tongue-smelling, sixth scent heat detecting animals really are!  If you would like to learn more about Kiawah’s snakes, spend some time with our Naturalists.

Naturalist Melanie Musso
Photo by Pam Cohen