Meet the creatures with the most powerful, sensitive, and sophisticated ears in the animal kingdom.
Every animal has a specific range of frequencies it can hear and is most sensitive to sounds in particular parts of its range. A couple of measures we’ll be looking at for comparison here are Hertz (Hz) and decibels (dB). We use Hz for measuring pitch and dB (a logarithmic measure) for loudness.
So which animal has the most super sense of hearing? Which animal has the longest hearing range? We’ll get to that, but first, it might be helpful to consider…
The Human Standard
Humans have a decent pitch range, from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. We call frequencies below the range of human hearing infrasonic and call frequencies above our range ultrasonic. The lower limit of audibility for humans is 0 dB.
Prolonged exposure to infrasound at high volumes can make us sick, rupture our organs, and even kill us, despite being completely silent to our ears.
The Animal Champions
Lots of animals can hear infrasonic and ultrasonic sounds beyond our capabilities. This includes most of our pets. Cats, dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs can all hear wider ranges of pitch than us.
But which animals have the best hearing?
Highest frequency: The greater wax moth has the best ultrasonic hearing in the world by far, going up to at least 300,000 Hz. It also hears the widest range of frequencies, and its hearing is highly precise (e.g., it can distinguish between bat calls and equally high-frequency mating calls from other greater wax moths).
If you’re wondering why a moth needs such astonishing hearing, the answer is at least in part that these moths are often eaten by bats that produce incredibly high-pitched calls. So their hearing has stayed several steps ahead. There’s no sound any bat can make that this moth can’t hear.
Lowest frequency: Pigeons’ ability to hear extremely low-frequency infrasounds (as low as just 0.05 Hz) is second to none. They can use this superpower to detect distant storms, but at such low frequencies, they can even detect upcoming earthquakes and volcanos.
Elephants are another animal commonly associated with low-frequency hearing, but with a lower bound of around 14 Hz (some reports put it as low as 5 Hz), they don’t come close to pigeons. However, elephants are notable for their low-frequency seismic communication that allows them to exchange information at long distances. Research has shown elephants are able to recognize unique calls of other individuals up to 1.5 km or 0.9 mi away. They use their huge vocal chords to create infrasonic sounds humans are unable to hear, and other elephants pick up these sounds using both their ears and feet. They can even use the difference between how long it takes a sound to reach them through the ground and the air to determine the approximate distance it’s coming from.
Most acute hearing: Wolves, cats, and some breeds of dogs have the most far-out long-distance hearing. All of them are among animals that can rotate their ears to better capture sound, and all of them have been known to detect sounds as quiet as a ridiculous -15 dB (in the frequency ranges they’re most sensitive to). For comparison, most anechoic chambers (rooms designed to completely absorb sound reflections) can’t reach that low of a volume.
Then there are the incredible animals that can use echolocation, in which hearing plays a part. But I’m going to treat that as a separate sense and cover it in another post.
What about animals with the best vision and smell? Check out my additional articles in this series: