Surfing sandy dunes, racing over razor-sharp rock, clinging to the canopy, traversing trails, and yes, sometimes even gliding through the green of the rainforest, it’s no secret that snakes know how to get around. Almost any surface, in almost any habitat, land or sea, snakes will find a way. It’s astonishing, really. A snakes range and mobility rivals even the most agile tetrapods, and they do it all without legs. If you’ve ever wondered just how snakes move, you’re not alone. It’s a question that’s sparked curiosity and studies for generations. The secret: it’s all about friction.
Imagine yourself making your way down a sandy slope, or carefully navigating an icy parking lot. You change your footing to match the surface you’re on. It’s all subconscious, really. Your body knows how to adjust to new surfaces which require different types of friction in order for you to keep moving.
A snake is essentially all body, and its scales play an essential part in the friction needed to grip near any surface. Without feet or hands to pull them forwards, they rely on a variety of bodily movements to propel themselves. Let’s explore a few.
The primary method of snake movement is known as serpentine locomotion, or undulatory locomotion. It’s the S-shape you imagine when you think of a slithering snake, Unlike walking or running, this type of locomotion involves a series of rhythmic muscular contractions along the snake’s body, creating waves that propel them forward.
Lateral undulation is the most common form of serpentine locomotion. Snakes push against objects in their environment, such as rocks or vegetation, to generate friction and propel themselves forward. It’s a coordinated action between their muscles and scales. As the snake contracts its muscles on one side of the body, the scales grip the surface, preventing backward sliding. Then, the snake pushes against the ground, causing the body to move forward in a wavy motion.
In rectilinear locomotion, snakes use their belly scales to grip the ground and pull themselves forward in a straight line, much like a caterpillar. This technique is particularly useful when navigating narrow spaces or climbing trees.
Another fascinating form of snake movement is sidewinding. Sidewinding snakes usually live in sandy or loose soil environments where a balance between grip and get is key on a surface that moves beneath you. It’s not enough to simply push against the surface. You’d never get anywhere, like a car stuck in the snow or on a sandy beach. By lifting parts of their body off the ground and forming a series of lateral curves, snakes reduce the amount of contact with the surface, minimizing friction and enabling them to move efficiently across loose substrates.
Concertina locomotion involves repeatedly and alternatively pulling up the body into bends and straightening. Think of reaching forward, anchoring yourself to the ground, and scrunching up the rest of your body as you pull it forward. Except, in this case, your not scrunching vertically, but horizontally.
Adaptation at Its Finest
The mesmerizing movement of snakes without legs is a testament to the wonders of evolutionary adaptation. Through the combination of muscle contractions, scales, and flexible bodies, these legless reptiles have developed an impressive range of locomotion techniques to navigate near any environment. Whether it’s the undulating waves of lateral movement or the precision of rectilinear locomotion, snakes prove there’s more than one way to get around.
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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.