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.
But before getting to the world’s best listeners, it might be helpful to first consider…
The Human Baseline
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 frequencies above our range are ultrasonic.
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.
As for volume, the lower limit of audibility for humans (i.e., the quietest sound we can hear) is 0 dB.
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 pitch ranges than us.
But which animals have the best hearing? Below, we’ll look at a few different categories of best.
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 the evolutionary arms race has kept this moth’s hearing several steps ahead. There’s no sound any bat can make that they 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 still stand out 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 cords to create infrasonic sounds humans are unable to hear, and other elephants pick up these sounds using both their large 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.
And while we’ve veered off course into long-distance communication (separate from specialized hearing), I’d be remiss to not mention the world’s experts at it: whales. Baleen whales (including the blue whale) and sperm whales are standouts. Just how good are they? The longest-distance whale calls can be heard and recognized thousands of miles away. They pull this off through the combination of:
- Low-frequency infrasonics (lower frequencies travel farther with less scattering and distortion).
- Crazy-loud volume (the loudest vocalizations of any creatures, with sperm whales being recorded at 230 dB, comparable to a Saturn V rocket launch—so you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time swimming with sperm whales).
- The fact that sound travels much farther and faster through water than air.
- Baleens’ mastery of using the ocean’s “deep sound channel.”
Most acute hearing: Wolves, cats, and some breeds of dogs are among the animals with the most sensitive hearing, enabling them to pick up low volume sounds at long distances. 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. A few bat species are also known for their highly sensitive hearing that enables them to detect the footsteps of insects walking nearby.
Largest ears: This award goes to African elephants. Like other animals with big ears (including the long-eared jerboa, which has the largest ears relative to its body size), elephants use blood flowing through their large, thin ears to help dissipate heat. Compared to sweating, this is an especially useful adaptation/tactic in desert environments where conserving water is important.
Seeing by hearing: A number of incredible animals use echolocation to essentially see or map the world around them—even around corners—using the reflected echoes from sounds they make. Bats, dolphins, toothed whales, and in simpler forms, even a few birds, shrews, and humans can all do this (a handful of blind people are well known for developing their echolocation ability, among them Daniel Kish). However, although hearing plays a role in echolocation, it is a rather different sense.
Other Super Senses
Check out the next articles in this series to learn which animals have the most super senses of vision and smell: