Many animals have ears that revolve and pivot when they hear noise. Humans have vestigial structures in their ears that allow them to wiggle their ears somewhat. How would elves achieve this same effect.

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    $\begingroup$ Why couldn't a humanoid have feline ears? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Aug 27 '17 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ all they need is auriculares transplant, side effect may includes spasms ;> $\endgroup$ – user6760 Aug 28 '17 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Since elves do not exist, your fantasy elves can have whatever types of ears you like. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Aug 28 '17 at 12:02

Go backwards just a few small steps in our evolutionary tree, and you will encounter the primate sub-order strepsirrhini, consisting of lemurs, galagos, and lorises. These are perhaps not our fiercest cousins, but arguably the cutest.

Relevant here is that these creatures all have the feline-like pinnae that allow for rotation to focus on the direction of a sound. If human and elvish evolution diverged at or near this point in the tree of life, it would be entirely plausible for the elf branch to retain this trait. Elves in fiction are often portrayed as having a pointed pinna; here we are taking it a bit more extreme.

In this sense, where a human might be a large, intelligent, bipedal ape, an elf is likewise a large, intelligent, bipedal lemur.

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    $\begingroup$ +1: However this would utterly scupper the "half-elf" trope. No Elrond :( Alternatively, the genes needed for pinnae are probably still there, they just need to be switched on. It could be Elves split from humans much later, but evolutionary pressures caused those genes to activate and give them cat-like ears. $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Aug 28 '17 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ Note that, for this answer to be valid (actually, for any answer to be valid) ears cannot be any similar to what is commonly portrayed, but should be moved on top of the head (where, cats, lemurs, bats and all other sound-pinpointing dry land animals have them). $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Aug 28 '17 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ZioByte - Partly what I meant by "taking it a bit more extreme." Thanks for helping make it more clear. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Aug 28 '17 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @ZioByte Why? Evolutionarily, moving intact limbs is an “easy” feat. At its simplest, it could require as little as one mutation in a certain gene that controls ear development. Check out the Hox gene clusters (though note that this works by analogy only; I don’t actually know how ear growth is genetically controlled). $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Aug 28 '17 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @KonradRudolph: because the whole point of the exercise is not to move the ears, but to pinpoint the sound, so you need two "receptors" capable to point in the same direction to get phase difference. If the ears are, as ours (and "classical Elf's") pointing almost 180° degrees you have little advantage orienting them. It's very similar to eye placement: hunter has frontal to use parallax, prey has lateral to cover more surrounding. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Aug 28 '17 at 21:52

If I use the strict definition of "elf," then the answer must be no. Like humans, elves have ears on the sides of the head and the ears themselves are splayed out along the skull to capture sound in a hemispherical fashion. This gives us a tremendous advantage when it comes to triangulating sound from any source around us. However, our hearing is substantially weaker than creatures with cone-shaped ears.

Animals (like cats) with cone-shaped ears hear sound basically from only one direction: the direction the ears are pointing — but the cone shape captures sound better. Most such animals can rotate the ears to track sound, compensating somewhat for the lack of 360-degree tracking, but it's a much slower and less accurate process.

Remember that the shape of an elf's ear — the traditional pointy-eared elf — wouldn't actually give them improved hearing. The extra flesh is just that, extra flesh. We can stretch our ears today into marvelous shapes and it does nothing to our hearing.

Further, when you say "rotate" you must realize that so long as the ear isn't cone-shaped, there's nowhere for the rotation to go.


Let's assume elves had superior ear-wiggling muscle control such that they could pull the flesh behind the ear hole forward, turning the ear into a rudimentary cone-shaped ear akin to cupping your hands behind your ears. That would shift the ear from "tracking mode" to "sensitive mode," allowing them to hear better in the direction their nose was pointing. That's actually an interesting idea.

  • $\begingroup$ AFAIK, there's no reason a primate species couldn't evolve to have ears higher on the head. Perhaps a good target for this would be the horse. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 28 '17 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ My suspicion is that a review of species will discover hunters frequently have cone-shaped ears and gatherers frequently have splayed ears. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 28 '17 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think so. Lots of more-or-less cone-shaped ears in prey animals - horses, of course, cows, deer, rabbits, &c. I think what you might find is that predator ears mainly focus straight ahead (as with the cat picture below), while prey-species ears can swivel to focus sound from any direction. Much like eyes: predators tend to have narrow fields of view, prey a wider field. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 28 '17 at 17:05

Many people don't know this, but the pointy part of elves ears is an attachment point for a set of tendons and sinew that also attach around the base of the ear.

This gives them a lot of control over the shape of their ear; by constricting the tendons, they can cup and curl their ears much more than humans...it even allows them to hear "around corners" when hiding behind rocks and trees which is part of the reason they are so stealthy.

Of course the first hand subjective experience of the elf is not of pulling tendons but "hearing that particular spot over there".

The actual muscular mechanics is similar to the way a monkeys' tail works.


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