Hikers urged to talk the talk while walking the walk to ward off snakes

Queensland researchers have buried an enduring myth once and for all, showing snakes are certainly not deaf and can even hear airborne sounds.

And it might mean that talking could help ward them off.

Talking – or even singing – while bushwalking may help ward off snakes.Credit:iStock

“Because snakes don’t have external ears, people typically think they’re deaf and can only feel vibrations through the ground and into their bodies,” says Dr Christina Zdenek from the University of Queensland.

“But our research – the first of its kind using non-anaesthetised, freely moving snakes – found they do react to soundwaves travelling through the air – and possibly human voices.”

Zdenek and Queensland University of Technology professor Damian Candusso took 19 snakes into a studio and exposed them to different stimuli.

One produced ground vibrations that snakes typically respond to; the other two were airborne-only sounds.

Death adders (pictured), along with taipans and brown snakes, are likely to move away from sound.Credit:Wildlife Profiles

They found the snakes definitely reacted to the airborne sounds, but the reactions strongly depended on the type of snake involved.

Taipans, brown snakes, and especially death adders, were more likely to move away from sound. Only the woma python tended to move towards it.

Zdenek said that was likely explained by the fact the python is a large nocturnal snake with fewer predators, so it may not need to be as cautious as smaller species.

She said the study was a leap forward in understanding how snakes sense their environment.

“It’s not as big as vision or them flicking their tongue to taste the air, but we can be confident now that sound is part of that.”

But how does a creature with no external ears hear?

In simple terms, soundwaves vibrate their jawbones and that is transferred as an electronic signal into the fluid of their internal ear.

While it’s hard to definitively say that talking during a bushwalk will ward off snakes, Zdenek said it was entirely possible.

“In general, it’s better if a snake is aware of you, as long as you are not right on top of it,” she said.

“So probably, in addition to making yourself known with loud footsteps through the bush, speaking can also be part of the repertoire of letting snakes know you are approaching.

“Snakes are very vulnerable, timid creatures that hide most of the time, and we still have so much to learn about them.”


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