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The title fairly well sums up the question. We all know elves have pointed ears. Whether they be LotR style with slight tapers, or full blown foot long impracticalities, all elves have pointed ears.

In a realistic context though, would there be any advantage to having pointed ears (foot long or otherwise)? While I'm no ear-expert, it seems to me that there would be zero differences between a pointed ear and a rounded one.

Would there be benefits to pointed ears?


Please note that this is a and question. It's not about speculation on what pointed ears could be used for; it's about what advantages - specifically in the field of hearing - pointed ears could give to their owners.

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    $\begingroup$ Um yeah Tolkien's elves don't, originally, have pointy ears, that's only the Orcs, they used the convention for the movies because people expected it not because it's genre accurate. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 13 '17 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure but in Tolkien the pointed ears on the Orcs are a reminder of the suffering of the Elves at the hands of Morgoth. Orcs are basically mutilated Elves that were fleshcraft tortured by the first Dark Lord and twisted into what they have become and then magicked up to breed true. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 13 '17 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ You might look into biological studies of animals with pointed ears. Felines and canines come to mind. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Sep 13 '17 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ Pointed ears make it easier to keep your glasses on. $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Sep 13 '17 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Schwern: And horses. Not only pointed, but very mobile - they can swivel independently to point in the direction of sound. They're also a social signal: e.g. a horse that lays its ears back is really PO'd at something. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 14 '17 at 4:14

18 Answers 18

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I cannot answer for pointed ears specifically, but the shape of ears is known, in audio science, to have an impact on sounds reflected into the ear canal.

See here, an excerpt is below (The pinna is the outer part of the ear; plural is pinnae):

In animals the function of the pinna is to collect sound, and perform spectral transformations to incoming sounds which enable the process of vertical localization to take place.[2] It collects sound by acting as a funnel, amplifying the sound and directing it to the auditory canal. While reflecting from the pinna, sound also goes through a filtering process, as well as frequency dependent amplitude modulation which adds directional information to the sound (see sound localization, vertical sound localization, head-related transfer function, pinna notch). In various species, the pinna can also signal mood and radiate heat.

In humans at least (because it is easier for us to tell researchers what we are hearing) if the outer folds, bumps and valleys of our pinnae are filled with wax, even if no wax is used close to the ear canal, we lose the ability to locate the source of sounds. These folds, bumps and valleys are unique to each person, but when simulated on a computer they create micro-echoes and amplifications that are dependent upon the location of sounds; and the hypothesis is that our brains learn to interpret these in order to give us a sense of sound source position.

Thus, the pointing of the elven ears, whether movable or not, may be useful to them in triangulating sound sources; perhaps higher or lower frequency sounds than in the human range. Many animals with pointed ears do hear frequencies well above the human range. The point of the pointing (ha!) may also just be the physical length afforded; when it comes to sound waves this scale of difference can matter: It is why our bass speakers [and bass musical instruments] have to be larger than other speakers [and musical instruments], for example. The point may act as a wave guide for high frequencies that amplifies them in the elven ear canal.

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    $\begingroup$ Taking lore into account, elves are traditionally written as woods dwellers. Unlike humans, which tend to hunt on the open plains, elven hunters would need to adapt to the sound-dampening effects of the surrounding flora. $\endgroup$ – feelinferrety Sep 14 '17 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron I guess like any appendage; easier to grab in a fight, bite, or snag & injure in an environmental hazard. I've seen a few dogs with one ragged ear. But the same could be said for male genitalia; exposed and dangling for most mammals, including us, yet it persists. For ears, such disadvantages must be small versus the utility and advantages of ears, or evolution would have done away with ears. I suspect ear shapes for ALL animals is determined by their hearing range of frequencies, and the sounds of their natural environment of origin (including predators and prey). [continued...] $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 14 '17 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ [continued:] So to justify elven ears; my research (were I writing and worried about this) would be to find land-based animals with distinctly pointy ears that have been studied so you can find out what they hear in their natural environment, and what their range is. Make your elves have the same range, perhaps similar environment: That justifies their ear shape. Smallish elves could have been the routine prey of some animal, more so than we humans were; so more sensitive hearing was defensive. In any case, I'd start with the presumption of survival utility. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 14 '17 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ @talrnu That seems inconsistent with having outer ears at all; clearly there must be some evolutionary pressure keeping them large and intact. They don't protect the ear canal and to my knowledge have not been shown to be a common sexual selection feature. They don't seem to be a relic (like an appendix) or an unfortunate precursor feature subsequently elaborated and therefore difficult to undo and mutate away (like the blindspot in humans and other mammals, due to the optic nerve wiring being 'inside out'). IMO Pinnae and shapes must be evolutionarily preserved due to some survival advantage. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 14 '17 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @talmu Natural selection includes all of that. Large ears for heat radiation is a result of having ears in the first place, and mutations happening upon an additional purpose for them. Pressures do change, but vestigial features are generally shrunken and useless and a result of significant environmental change, like moving from land to water (dolphins, whales): But the sonic environment has not greatly changed for the vast majority of eared animals. Finally, useless "random shapes" around ear canals is NOT going to evolve on nearly every hearing species! Ears serve a purpose. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 14 '17 at 15:01
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One possible 'advantage' for features with non-obvious use in biology is always sexual selection: Bascially at some point in the evoltuion elves with pointier ears were more succesfull in mating and that's why now all elves have pointy ears (the sexual selection effect also doesn't have to stay, so for 'modern' elves it might not really be important).

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    $\begingroup$ I'd date a woman with pointy ears.... $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Sep 13 '17 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, this is the scientific explanation for certain unusual and impractical features of female humans. (Legit science reporting, but potentially NSFW.) $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Sep 13 '17 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ @BrettFromLA Isn't that due to the fact that exotic, elven women have been hypersexualized, though? $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Sep 14 '17 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ I would totally read a book that has a dedicated scene to explain that pointy ears are super hot (and the pointer the better). $\endgroup$ – jb. Sep 14 '17 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ See also: peacock fan $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Sep 14 '17 at 20:23
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Personally, I like Nicolai's answer: pointed ears show good elf breeding stock, so I upvoted.

But another couple of possibilities:

  1. Pointed ears are more sensitive to moving air and temperature at the tips, although I do not know why this might be useful, but perhaps they can sense impending changes in the weather.

  2. They clearly identify an elf. This can have all manner of advantages (and one or two disadvantages), but if being recognised as an elf, on balance, makes an attack less likely then there is a clear case for evolution to start favouring pointed ears.

I can see no significant benefit gained in hearing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Kind of like why Poison Arrow frogs are vivid, there's no camouflage advantage but every predator knows to avoid them! $\endgroup$ – Liath Sep 14 '17 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Liath On the other hand, there are species (IIRC of frog) that specifically mimic the appearance of poisonous ones very closely to avoid being eaten by predators. I think cheetah cubs use a similar survival strategy, too. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 14 '17 at 13:40
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Pointed ears on terrestrial animals allows for better directional hearing; but those ears are generally located higher on the head and have some mobility (see foxes or big cats; they can move their ears about much more than humans can.)

What is depicted for elves, or vulcans for that matter, would really have, to my knowledge, almost no difference in function from our own.

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    $\begingroup$ I will also note that not all elves are depicted the same way; the Night Elves of WOW, for instance, have such comically large ears that those may in fact provide for better hearing. It all depends on how large the "cup" formed by the ear is, and the ability to ambulate the ears to focus in on sound. Ears that move are, again, better than ears that don't. $\endgroup$ – FunkThompson Sep 13 '17 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ … shouldn't you just add details like that to your answer? :-P $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Sep 14 '17 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ You can use the edit button just under your post to add to your answer at any time $\endgroup$ – nzaman Sep 14 '17 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, please edit your answer to expand on it. Comments are for suggesting improvements or asking for clarification. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 14 '17 at 13:39
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Since pointed ears can expose a higher surface to the environment, they can be used for the heat management of the head, helping cool the blood circulating there. The effect would be bigger for elephant-like ears, but as far as I know elves do not live in the savannah, only in temperate forests, so the external temperature is not so high.

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    $\begingroup$ A larger brain would create more heat $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Sep 14 '17 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ @JollyJoker, I don't get your point $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 14 '17 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ They don't need a high external temperature to need more heat management if they produce more heat internally. Therefore, they get the point ;) $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Sep 14 '17 at 7:45
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Apart from the biological and sexual/reproductive uses of pointy ears, there are also some social benefits to consider:

  • More blingspace. Elves with higher points can sport more piercings, wear more silver danglies and even wear longer engraved earpoint cuffs.

  • Elvish architects can stick not just a pencil behind their ears, but also a slide rule, straight edge and a small case of King Aragorn filterless cigs. Finest Shireweed known to Elfkind!

  • Longer earpoints give Elvish mothers more surface area to pinch when correcting wayward children.

  • Increased employment opportunities. The long earpoints common to Elves gives welcome opportunities for otherwise unemployable earmuff-knitting Broonies. They love to knit wee snug pointed earmuffs for Elvish families and when treated kindly will churn out a regular supply of beautiful woolen stuffs to last the long winter through.

  • For the party-poopers, I just did a proper witcrafty experiment. An old pair of leather foot guards served as a handy-dandy stand-in for pointy Elf ears. Put on a Standard Youtube recording of rain and found that the lower limit of audibility for me is level 14. Below that, only occasional loud thunder became audible again. Nifty Elf ears allowed me to hear fairly well down to about level 10 of volume. Actual Audiological Benefit = improved hearing of soft forest sounds. Like Ents breathing and wolves scurrying in the distance. Or even the light footfall of a wayward Hobbit.

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    $\begingroup$ Looks like someone didn't bother reading more than the question title $\endgroup$ – talrnu Sep 14 '17 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ I thought it was funny. These are things a human might say in jest about elf ears. Or it's part of elf mythology. $\endgroup$ – 458 Sep 14 '17 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't answer the question of course, but still funny. :) $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 14 '17 at 17:46
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And another thing nobody mentioned. PARASITES ! Another important thing in evolution, apart from mating, is not getting infested by some pesky buggers. So maybe the elf suffered a terrible ear-entering-brain-consuming-bug infection and the pointy ears were deforming the ear entrance enough to stop this bug.

Or they were just bind to a gene that was needed to hold off some dangerous parasite.

Such parasites do exist in our world ( not the brain eating, but bad enough) but I wont give any links. Don't want to spoil your appetite (already spoiled mine :D )

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  • $\begingroup$ There are brain eating parasites. Multiple different kinds, in fact $\endgroup$ – somebody Sep 17 '17 at 21:05
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in addition to what @Nicolai said, another thing that people forget about evolution is that not everything needs a purpose (or its purpose no longer exists) if something evolves that is neither positive or negative, there is a chance that it will spread for no other reason than it doesn't matter if it exists or not. Think of earlobes, there is no reason for them but there is no disadvantage with them (slight disadvantage of a little energy to create but not enough to influence evolution)

evolution is random, the more a trait helps the animal to breed, the more likely it will spread throughout the species. The more a trait stops breeding, the quicker it stops being part of the species. If there is no effect then there is a chance that it will spread, a chance it will die and a chance it will linger with a proportion of the population.

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    $\begingroup$ Earlobes are sexually pleasing to many people (i.e. biting and sucking). $\endgroup$ – 458 Sep 14 '17 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ this was exactly what I was thinking while i was reading the other answers, even if long ears don't provide an evolutionary advantage now, they may have long ago in the past Like wisdom teeth and pinky toes. $\endgroup$ – Justin Ohms Sep 14 '17 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Slight nitpick: evolution isn't random per se; mutation is random, natural selection is a filter. So it's more like evolution is procedurally generated. $\endgroup$ – Maddock Emerson Oct 24 at 20:16
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Pointy and perky ears seem to have an inextricable inverse relationship with domestication and how well the creature "likes" humans. Dogs, foxes, and other mammals with a stronger fight or flight response tend to have really perky ears while breeds with mellow temperaments have rounder, droopier ears. Researchers are still trying to work out why this relationship exists across species, but haven't reached any conclusions yet.

Pointy ears on elves may signify an intrinsic feral nature, naturally easy to spook or provoke. This doesn't mean you can't have refined high elves instead of fighty wood elves, because the culture they are brought up in (and perhaps their long life span) may influence them to tame their instincts. Vulcans in the Star Trek universe are naturally very passionate, and perhaps agressive, yet they tame their emotions. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they also have pointy ears.

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They would give no advantage but they also wouldn't cause any significant disadvantage. So, there would be no survival pressure against them if they showed up.

If they were considered fashionable, eventually the wealthy and powerful would all have pointed ears.

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Evolution is literally throwing a bunch of random updates into a creatures genome and hoping that they'll be better than the last batch. That being said, I can think of several reason's why pointy ears may have been an elven upgrade.

  1. It looks good. Remember that blond hair started with one european girl, and it was considered so attractive that there's a significant portion of the earth's population that has blond hair today. Breasts and large butts are also considered to be only evolved do to sex appeal.

    • It's also worth considering that they evolved for a cultural, non sexual reason. Large ears could have attracted mates because large ears were some kind of social status. Over time they ended up becoming a common trait, even though it may have started as a single prestigious clan or family who were recognized by slightly bigger ears.
  2. Listening ability. While the eardrum is more important when considering what you can and can't hear, the ear does hold some importance. If the ears are long, pronounced, or even capable of movement it may indicate that the ears have evolved to locate or pinpoint certain sounds. Perhaps a high frequency elf sound, or certain types of animals that use ultrasonic waves.

    • If not a device used to capture a particular frequency of sound, a large ear could work as a capturing device for echoes, which are harder to detect with round objects such as trees.

    • Another way they could function as a sound capturing device is a style which protrudes perpendicular to their line of sight, allowing them to capture only sounds coming from the direction in which they are looking.

    • If the ears point more upwards, or have a 45° facing away from the ground they could be listening for sounds in trees above them.

    • If the ears angle slightly backwards to 45°, they may be listening to sounds coming from the sides. I personally would think it cool if their ears were designed to hear the sound of arrows so they could dodge arrows coming from the side.

  3. The ears help them communicate. If this is the trope where elves get red ears for embarrassment, raised ears for joy, and drooping ears for disappointment or sadness you can simply relate ease of communication to ease of mating.

    • It's also possible that they are used to communicate during hunting, espionage, or other times where non verbal communication was necessary.If your hands are full of bow and arrow, this could be quite helpful. This strongly implies that those who couldn't signal were more likely to die off, though.
  4. Luck. Some pointy eared guy who lived in the forest with his tribe only survived a bear attack because he was sick the day it happened. He was basically the only guy left so he laid with many women and had many children. Since he contributed a lot of DNA to the gene pool the trait stuck.

  5. Sensitive to environmental changes. A good place to put a sensory organ is near the brain, and since the ears were already sticking out, long ears could have evolved to have more surface area and be more sensitive to certain stimuli. These stimuli could include temperature, wind speed, sun strength, or something else.

  6. Symbiosis. In some literature elves are known for being able to talk to birds. Now imagine a small bird perched on an elves ear telling it a secret message. Tiny bird perches. (This thought makes me inexplicably happy.)

  7. Lazy Genes. Many traits that animals and plants have are basically flavor text of their genes. They don't hurt anything, but they weren't an advantage either. The only reason they stuck around is because there was no need to get rid of them. Doing nothing about a worthless gene is less work then doing something about it.

And finally after reading other replies, here are some more answers I didn't think of personally, but did agreed with:

  1. Hair. If elves do typically have long hair, having slightly larger ears that stick out may indeed increase their ability to hear past it.

  2. Child Raising. Someone made a joke about big ears making it easy for elf moms to discipline children, but in fact this could be true. Cats have a pressure point on their necks that is directly related to the way a mother cat carries its young. I don't know how unlikely this is, but it isn't impossible.

  3. An identifier. Elves may have pointy ears so creatures can tell the difference between long lived magic archers and whatever humans are. Whether this is so they can recognize each other or scare off outsiders is up to anyones guess. Or imagination, anyways.

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Pointy ears provide directional cues to other members of the species. You can tell where your cat is listening so, I'll bet, can their kittens and/or hunting partners. These directional dues exist without turning the head. Turning the head provides a larger break in motion camouflage. A dog with pointy ears certainly provides "interest" cues with it's ear pointing - floppy eared dogs do too but it's less clear. So in dogs it's a communication signal. Dogs point with their noses (probably feel sorry for us short pointer humans) but cat's point with their ears.

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It allows the sound collection surface to extend past the hair of creature, should they happen to have long hair.

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    $\begingroup$ There are plenty of long-haired humans whose hair covers their ears, and I don't think any of them have hearing difficulties because of it. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Sep 14 '17 at 14:03
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Pointed ears are more streamline, less air resistance, and therefore hear "better" when the head is down and moving fast (i.e. less flapping around). Perhaps they used to hunt in the dark, moving quickly, listening for prey.

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Pointed ears are predominantly associated with animals, especially felids, this may be a hint for a possible genetic connection.

I do not, however, ever remember even a hint that there would be any benefits related to or arising out of this, however marginal it be.

To the science side of the things, elongated - if not pointy - ears seem to be associated with hearing into the ultrasound range.

It may however just be the "be different - think different" thing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Like those people with an awful lot of small sculptures and carvings at home, that is. $\endgroup$ – Victor Sep 14 '17 at 19:48
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I was born with pointed ears in real life, and within the first year or so my right ear unfolded and looks normal (though there's a small dent at its tip that isn't visible unless you're at just the right angle). My left ear isn't long like the most of ones you see in movies, so there's no hearing benefit. It's likely unrelated, but if anything that ear is worse. It's the only ear I've ever gotten an infection in (at least twice), and overall it tends to be a little more clogged, hurt more underwater, etc. I also can't hear particularly high (less than 19kHz, and I'm under 20). My best guess as to why my ear is pointy would be that it and the other were folded while in utero. I really can't say what the effect would be if they were genetic, but I hope this can be of help!

Also it might be worth noting that the tip of the ear is not broad and flat like pointed ears are in movies and art frequently. This might be better at catching noises than mine, which has a ridge from its point to the normal ridge that exists in almost every ear.

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They allow you to more easily put on a hat that has ear-holes, such as this one.

enter image description here

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Streamlining

If the creature swims alot, pointed ears transforms it into a catamaran, highly stable in rough seas.

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    $\begingroup$ I really don't think pointed ears would make that much of a difference to an elf's hydrodynamic profile, to be honest. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Sep 14 '17 at 13:51

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