Hearing is a fundamental sense in the animal kingdom. As humans, we often take our auditory abilities for granted. While we can hear a limited range of frequencies, many creatures can detect sounds far beyond our senses. They harness their acute hearing to be the best navigators in complex environments. It is survival of the fittest—and, in this case, survival of the best-tuned ears.

Human Hearing Range: 20 to 20,000 Hz

Hertz (Hz) is the unit of measurement for frequency and how we measure sound waves. Frequency refers to the number of oscillations or cycles per second, determining the pitch of a sound. For example, a low-pitched sound has a low frequency, like a bass drum. A high-pitched sound has a higher frequency, like a bird’s chirp. Hearing different frequencies enables animals (including humans) to interpret and respond to sounds.

The human ear can detect frequencies ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Despite the seemingly wide range of 8 octaves, our hearing capabilities are actually quite limited compared to many animals, particularly at the extremes of the audible spectrum.

Animal Hearing Adaptations

Animals have evolved hearing abilities suited to their habitats. Hearing is important to survival because it enables them to detect predators, locate prey, communicate, and navigate their environment.

One common adaptation is specialized ears, which can vary significantly in size, shape, and structure across species. For example, elephants and rabbits have large external ears that capture and amplify sound waves. This allows them to hear sounds near and far with precision. Seals and whales have highly sensitive hearing to detect sounds underwater. Bats and dophins rely on echolocation to navigate in the darkness.

The audible frequency ranges are based on their ecological needs. Dogs and cats, for example, hear higher frequencies than humans, which is advantageous for hunting and detecting prey. Conversely, animals like rhinos and hippos hear low-frequency sounds, which are effective for long-distance communication.

Animals with the Best Hearing

Moths: Up to 300,000 Hz

The greater wax moth has the best hearing in the world. This ability is a vital defense mechanism against their natural predator, the bat. By tuning into the ultrasonic chirps of bats with their sensitive antennae, moths can execute evasive maneuvers, often emitting their own ultrasonic chirps as a counter-measure. When the moths hear a bat’s ultrasonic pulses, they instinctively respond with evasive aerial maneuvers or drop to the ground to avoid detection.

This auditory arms race between predator and prey is a fascinating display of evolutionary adaptation at its finest. As bats evolved more sophisticated echolocation, the moths had to keep pace with better ultrasound hearing to detect the bats’ calls and escape.

Dolphins: 2 to 200,000 Hz

Dolphins use echolocation to navigate underwater. Echolocation is a sophisticated adaptation that rivals sonar technology. They emit chirps and clicks that allow them to detect objects up to 230 feet (70 meters) away. Through vibrations, dolphins can “hear” where they are going. However, the real superpower lies in the impressive range of higher frequencies. They can hear sounds up to 200,000 Hz and as low as 2 Hz. Dolphins have an advanced auditory cortex that processes sounds much faster than humans can.

One of dolphins’ most unique adaptations is reducing their hearing sensitivity to protect themselves from loud noises. This inbuilt mechanism temporarily decreases the dolphins’ hearing abilities to prevent permanent damage.

Beluga Whales: 1,000 to 120,000 Hz

Beneath the icy surfaces of the Arctic waters, beluga whales showcase their superior hearing capabilities. With a frequency range of 1,000 to 123,000 Hz, belugas have significantly better hearing than that of baleen whales. They can hear both low rumbles and high-pitched echolocation clicks for communication and navigation, a necessity in their habitat where sight is limited.

Known as the “canaries of the sea,” Beluga Whales are very vocal animals, the most vocal of all whales. And what is more fascinating is that their moos, clicks and chirps are in the range that is audible to human ears, unlike many other whale species whose calls are at lower frequencies. Their nickname parallels canaries, small songbirds that were traditionally kept in coal mines as an “alert system” – if the canaries stopped singing, it warned of dangerous gases. Similarly, Belugas’ frequent vocalizations indicate the ocean environment’s health.

Bats: 9,000 to 200,000 Hz

Similar to dolphins, bats use echolocation to communicate, navigate, and hunt. These nocturnal creatures can detect objects as fine as a human hair in total darkness. Their hearing is so sensitive that they can discern between different types of prey based on the echoes returned.

Interestingly, different bat species have evolved distinct echolocation strategies to suit their ecological niches. For example, fruit bats, which rely more on sight and smell, have less developed echolocation compared to insect-eating bats that hunt in complete darkness. Some bats can even produce frequency-modulated calls that sweep through a range of frequencies, providing detailed information about the size, shape, and texture of objects.

When a bat locates prey, it switches to a distinctive “feeding buzz” call. This feeding buzz notifies other bats in the group that prey has been found nearby.

Rats & Mice: 1 to 90,000 Hz

Rats and mice have highly developed hearing capabilities. Their ears are equipped with a sensitive structure, including a well-developed cochlea and an intricate system of hair cells that detect sound vibrations. This allows them to hear faint sounds. They also have an excellent ability to locate the source of sounds, aided by their highly mobile ears.

These rodents also exhibit a phenomenon known as “acoustic startle response,” a reflexive jump in reaction to sudden loud noises. This response is a defensive mechanism, helping them quickly evade potential threats. Studies have shown that rats can learn to recognize and differentiate between various sounds, demonstrating their intelligence (rats and mice are one of the smartest animals). This ability is useful in avoiding dangers while navigating environments.

Cats: 45 to 85,000 Hz

Domesticated cats are the epitome of flexible and focused listeners. Each of their ears, controlled independently by around three dozen muscles, can rotate up to 180 degrees to precisely capture sound from various directions. The tapered shape of a cat’s ear canal funnels sound waves directly to the eardrum.

Cats can hear octaves higher than humans and even dogs. This ability allows them to detect the high-pitched calls of rodents and other small prey. But, their hearing sensitivity is not only limited to high frequencies. They can also hear low-frequency sounds, which helps them sense vibrations and movements.

Wolves: 40 to 80,000 Hz

Wolves are acutely able to hear and attune to the high-frequency sounds of their environment. These apex predators are capable of hearing ultrasonic frequencies up to 6 miles (10 km) away in the forest and even farther in open terrain. This ability allows them to detect the movement of prey, from the breaking of twigs to soft footsteps. When visibility is low due to snow, they can hear prey beneath the snow.

Wolves use a variety of vocalisations for communication within the pack. Howling is one of the most famous sounds of the wolf, used for long-distance communication to gather the pack, mark territory, or locate each other.

Dogs: 40 to 45,000 Hz

Domesticated dogs have a broad hearing range, but it is not as sensitive as wolves. Because dogs have been bred for human companionship, they do not rely as heavily on their hearing for survival.

In domestic settings, this sense translates into dogs being able to respond to commands from their human companions and hearing sounds within the household environment, from the familiar sound of their owner’s car to the beep of a microwave. Their hearing also alerts them to approaching dangers before humans are aware of them, providing an early warning system that contributes to both the dog’s and owner’s safety.

Dogs have about 18 muscles in their ears which allow them to rotate, tilt, and raise their ears to better capture sound waves. Additionally, the shape of a dog’s ear canal amplifies sound waves.

Rabbit: 360 to 42,000 Hz

It’s pretty obvious that rabbits have good hearing given their notably large ears. In fact, a rabbit’s ears can account for up to 12% of their body surface area!

Rabbits are naturally alert animals, often seen with their ears erect and moving, constantly scanning for sounds. Each ear can rotate up to 270 degrees independently and are able of detecting both low and high-frequency sounds. By picking up the sounds of approaching predators, such as foxes, hawks, or snakes, rabbits can quickly seek cover or flee to safety.

In addition to detecting predators, hearing is also important for social interactions within rabbit groups. They can detect the movements and signals of other rabbits, which helps maintain social structure and cohesion. Although they are generally quiet animals, rabbits can produce a range of vocalizations, such as thumping the ground with their hind legs to signal danger or distress calls to alert other rabbits.

Horses: 55 to 33,500 Hz

Horses have keen senses, and their hearing abilities are no exception. They use it for communication within the herd and with humans. Their vocalisations each convey different messages. For instance, a whinny can indicate a call to a companion, while a nicker often signals affection or greeting.

Horses are typically found in a herd, with at least one on the lookout. The lookout horses’ role is to alert others of potential danger. If they hear a threat, they will typically showcase a run-first, look-later behavior. While their sensitive hearing provides many advantages, it can also pose challenges. Horses can be easily startled by sudden loud noises such as fireworks, thunderstorms, and construction noises, leading to stress and anxiety. This heightened sensitivity to sound can result in flight responses or other stress behaviors.

Owls: 200 to 12,000 Hz

Owls are another nocturnal animal with exceptional hearing and vision to match. This makes them fantastic silent hunters of the dark. Unlike most birds, owl ears are not externally visible; instead, they are hidden beneath the feathers on the sides of their heads. These ears are asymmetrically placed—one ear is typically higher than the other. This asymmetry is required for vertical sound localization, enabling owls to pinpoint the exact location of sounds in three dimensions.

Additionally, owls have a distinctive facial discs, formed by a concave arrangement of feathers. These facial discs act like satellite dishes, directing sound waves towards their ears. By adjusting the shape of these discs, owls can focus on sounds from specific directions.

Elephants: 16 to 12,000 Hz

Elephants have the ability to hear low-frequency vibrations, as low as 16 Hz. Their large ears serve as receptors that capture and amplify sound waves. Within the inner ear, specialized structures enable elephants to detect infrasound. This allows long-distance communication among herd members. The calls of other elephants can echo up to 2.5 miles (4 km) away.

Additionally, their large ears are also used for thermoregulation, to release excess body heat into the environment. Elephants pump warm blood from their bodies into the vessels in their ears. As the blood flows through the ears, it cools down before returning to the rest of the body. This cooling effect is enhanced by flapping their ears, which increases airflow and heat dissipation.

Animals Without Hearing

In contrast to the animals above that have phenomenal hearing, there are certain species that live in silence.

Squid: Lack auditory organs and rely on their highly developed vision and sense of touch. They use their ability to detect changes in water pressure and vibrations to navigate, hunt, and avoid predators.

Cuttlefish: Like squid, cuttlefish do not have hearing capabilities. They depend on their excellent vision and the ability to sense water currents and pressure changes. Their skin contains chromatophores for communication and camouflage.

Octopuses: Do not have ears and cannot hear. They rely on their keen eyesight, tactile sense through their arms, and chemoreceptors to explore their environment, detect prey, and communicate with other octopuses.

Earthworms: Rely on vibration detection through their skin to navigate and sense their environment.

Jellyfish: Use simple nerve nets to respond to environmental stimuli like water currents and light.

Star-Nosed Mole: Nearly deaf, relies on its highly sensitive nose and touch rather than hearing for detecting prey and navigating underground.

Blind Cave Fish (Astyanax mexicanus): Some populations have lost their hearing due to living in complete darkness, rely on lateral line systems to detect water movements.

Certain Mollusks (e.g., clams, oysters): Use chemoreceptors and tactile sensors to detect changes in their environment.

Spiders: Many species do not have auditory organs, rely on mechanoreceptors on their legs to detect vibrations and movements.