Turtles Ears – A Complete Overview
When you think of turtles, one of the things that doesn’t come to mind is their hearing. In fact, many assume that turtles lack auditory perception.
Well, do turtles have ears?
Yes, they do.
The structure of turtle ears is unique, differing significantly from those of other animals. While they may not have external ears like dogs, cats, and even humans do, they do have internal ears.
These are hard to spot, impossible even, as the sides of a turtle’s head are smooth and lack the holes we have come to associate with ears.
So, can turtles hear?
Yes, they can.
As many turtle keepers may know, turtles are particularly responsive to loud noises (and noises in general).
To better understand how a turtle’s ears work we need to take a closer look at how the anatomy of the ear itself.
Table of Contents
The turtle’s internal ear
Different species of turtles have varying auditory sensitivities, which play a role in their survival and behavior in their natural habitats.
To know how turtles hear, you need to know how the turtle’s ears work. Turtles are particularly sensitive to low frequencies thus making them experts at hearing low-frequency sounds.
These low-frequency sounds are important for navigation, as well as communication.
This communication is crucial for female turtles, who use these sounds to locate and protect their hatchlings.
How a turtle’s ear works
The ear of the turtle is composed of several distinct parts, including – the inner ear and middle ear. On the outside of the turtle’s ears, there are flaps of skins that capture sound waves.
The absence of an outer ear in turtles limits their range of audible frequencies. In contrast, the outer ear in humans helps capture and direct sound waves more effectively. In comparison, a human’s external ear is shaped to draw sound waves into the inner ear.
Unlike many animals, turtles do not have an ear drum; instead, they rely on other mechanisms for sound transmission. The resonance of the middle ear cavity in turtles plays a vital role in how they perceive sound. Turtles instead have thin flaps on the sides of their head. These are not just any flaps, but thin flaps of skin that are integral to the turtle’s unique hearing mechanism. These flaps, located strategically on the sides of their heads, play a vital role in their hearing process.
This skin is similar to what is found on the rest of the turtle’s head. These sound waves are then transmitted to the internal ear bones via the middle ear, playing a crucial role in hearing.
The large inner ears are connected to the auditory nerve, enhancing the turtles’ efficiency in processing these sound waves. These big inner ears play a crucial role in the turtles’ ability to detect lower frequency sounds.
The sound waves or vibrations warn the turtle of predators, as well as help them to detect potential prey and navigate their surroundings.
Due to the nature of the turtle’s ears, they are incapable of hearing high-frequency sounds such as the chirping of birds (which have frequencies between 1,000 Hz and 8,000 Hz) but they are able to sense vibrations and other low-frequency sounds such as the vibration from drums.
How turtles hear underwater
Turtles’ hearing capabilities underwater are also influenced by water pressure. Studies have found that changes in water pressure can affect how sound travels and is perceived by aquatic species, including turtles.
Turtles hear better in water than on land. Softshell turtles, an aquatic turtle species, exemplify this with their remarkable underwater hearing capabilities. Conversely, terrestrial turtles have adapted differently from their marine animal counterparts, showcasing the diversity in auditory adaptations among different environments. This is down to the fatty (subcutaneous) layer underneath the flaps. The thick layer of skin and fat makes it hard for turtles to hear well on land.
The turtle’s hearing range
The auditory range of turtles seems to be between 200 and 750 Hz. As such, turtles don’t respond well to sounds above 1000 Hz.
The sea turtle ear, in particular, is an extraordinary example of adaptation. This is especially true for loggerhead sea turtles, whose hearing abilities have been a subject of extensive research. These ears are specifically designed to function optimally in their aquatic environments.
Research done on green sea turtles shows that their hearing is most sensitive from 200 Hz to 500 Hz. in comparison, humans can hear frequencies of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.
The video below shows and plays sounds with frequencies from 20 Hz all the way to 20,000 Hz. With this, you can see how the turtle’s hearing is on the low side.
The turtle’s other major senses
Interestingly, the age of the turtle and the structure of their turtle shells also influence their sensory perception. Older turtles with more developed shells tend to have more powerful senses, a testament to their adaptive evolution.
To compensate for their limited hearing, turtles rely on their senses of sight and smell, both of which are much more developed than their hearing.
The turtle’s sense of smell is rather acute, and there is even evidence to suggest that they use this sense to return to the same shore time after time to mate and lay eggs.
Turtles have a good sense of smell which aids them in navigating their environment, finding food, and identifying mates. Their sense of sight is also crucial to the turtle’s existence.
They can differentiate between different colors, sizes, patterns, and shapes. “Interestingly, turtles are particularly sensitive to the yellow light spectrum, aiding their visual acuity. See our article about turtle eyes for more on that.
A question many turtle keepers ask is “Can my turtle hear and respond to me?”
With the evidence present, your turtle can most likely hear you when you approach the tank to feed it.
It may even respond to your footsteps, movement and voice as it learns to associate you with food.
However, there isn’t research or data on this. As such, you may have to base your turtle’s responsiveness to you on your relationship and interacts with it.
As I usually tell first-time keepers, turtles are display pets. Unlike pets such as dogs, cats, and pythons, interactions with turtles are generally limited. However, for turtle owners, understanding the unique needs of a pet turtle, especially their auditory capabilities, can enrich the experience of turtle owners.
Ear Infections in Turtles
Since turtles have ears they can develop ear infections (middle ear infection to be specific).
The box turtle, for instance, often suffers from ear infections due to its unique ear structure, different from other turtle species. When left untreated, the infected area develops hard dry pus within the ear cavity. This is referred to as an aural abscess. This appears as a lump on the side of the turtle’s head.
It is important to treat aural abscess as soon as possible. This is because, if it is left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the head including the skull and jaw. The swollen membrane over the head can even rupture.
Causes & prevention of ear infection
An ear infection is a sign that the turtle has a weakened immune system. This is usually down to poor husbandry and/or insufficient vitamin A in the turtle’s diet.
Supplement the turtle’s meal with multivitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and calcium. In the case of ear infection, vitamin A is a must.
However, if the turtle’s diet mainly composes of insects, weeds, and leafy greens, then make sure to supplement the food.
Poor husbandry here refers to poor sanitation. Not only should an aquarium filter be used to keep the water clean, but also the water in the aquarium needs to be changed regularly.
Additionally, the tank itself needs to be scrubbed down regularly. It is essential to have a schedule that you follow fastidiously.
See our guide on how to clean a turtle tank here for more tips.
Injury to the membrane can also develop into an infection. This may be caused by objects in the aquarium or by an aggressive housemate.
Some symptoms of an ear infection include:
- Swelling around the ear membrane,
- Loss of appetite – as the turtle finds it painful to open the mouth and swallow food,
- Eye inflammation, and
- Thick pus visible through the ear membrane.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis and treatment of ear infections are best left to a trained professional. The herp vet will perform a thorough examination and may even draw blood for lab work. After that, the cause of the infection needs to be identified.
The doctor may need to perform surgery on the turtle in order to remove any pus and will flush the cavity with sterile saline.
It will take several weeks for the skin membrane to heal.
If you want to see what the surgery looks like, here is a video below from a vet in Singapore who explains the steps and actually shows the surgery. This is a graphic video so you may not want to watch it.
While ears or hearing is one of the last things we associate turtles with, turtles do have ears and they do hear sounds.
They just do it very differently from other animals. This is down to several factors including their lack of external ears, the simplicity of their inner and middle ear and the limited amount of brainpower dedicated to hearing.
As such, turtles are able to recognize and distinguish between low frequency sounds best. They are particularly attuned to the best frequencies that facilitate communication and survival in their habitats.
Turtles have a hearing range of 200 and 750 Hz. Even with this limited range, turtles can communicate among themselves.
Babies cry out to adult females and adults can detect vibrations that warn them of predators. Their other senses such as sight and smell are well-developed and most relied on.
Lastly, since turtles have ears, they can suffer from ear infections. The main cause of this includes poor sanitation and lack of vitamin A.
To help prevent ear infections, supplement the turtle’s diet with enough vitamins & macronutrients and ensure that the enclosure & water is always clean.
If you have any additional information or questions, kindly leave a comment below.