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Snake With Four Legs Essay

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Four-Legged Snake Shakes Up Squamate Family Tree – Or Does It?

By Christie Wilcox | July 24, 2015 5:28 pm

A new fossil, named Tetrapodophis amplectus, claims to be a four-legged, burrowing snake. (A) Counterpart, showing skull and skeleton impression. (B) Main slab, showing skeleton and skull impression.
Figure 1 from Martill et al. 2015

Snakes, with their sleek, slithering shape, are unmistakable amongst the reptiles. Yet for decades, scientists have been debating just how these limbless lizard relatives ended up with their distinctive, elongated body.

On one side are scientists who argue that the serpentine shape was an aquatic adaptation. Many snake traits, including an elongated body and reduced limbs, are also features of swimming animals (think whales and dolphins, for example, which have lost their hind limbs). Early evidence also suggested that snakes were closely related to mosasaurs, the terrifying and extinct group of lizards that were woven into pop culture the moment one was fed a great white shark in Jurassic World. Non-theatrically, these marine reptiles ruled the seas during the Cretaceous, and possessed many snake-y features, including a jaw which stretches for large prey. The discovery of extinct marine snakes with hindlimbs, including Pachyrhachis, Haasiophis, and Eupodophis, seemed further proof of a marine origin.

But later analyses have suggested that Pachyrhachis and others are secondarily marine, the offshoots of a more derived snake group, and the connection between snakes and mosasaurs has come under suspicion. The prevailing hypothesis is now that snakes evolved on land — or, even more specifically, in it. A burrowing or ‘fossorial’ lifestyle could also produce long, skinny bodies and reduced limbs. More recent finds like Najash, Dinilysia, and Coniophis, which date back further than Pachyrhachis, all lived on land. But the evidence for a largely underground existence isn’t conclusive, either, and some hold to the idea that snakes were born in the sea.

The debate has continued so long because there is a dearth of snake fossils to rely upon. Snake bodies are by and large small and fragile, with thin bones that do not lend easily to fossilization. So scientists have had little material to work with when trying to determine changes over time.

A new fossil hopes to end the debate once and for all. A paper published this week in Science describes what appears to be a four-legged burrowing snake from Brazil. “Here it is, an animal that is almost a snake” says David Martill, a paleobiologist from the University of Portsmouth, “and it doesn’t show any adaptations to being in an aquatic environment.” But is it really that cut-and-dry? While the latest fossil find is making a splash in the news, it’s one of four noteworthy papers this year examining snake evolution, and placing the new study in context helps explain what makes the fossil so exciting, if controversial.

Reconstructing Snake Relationships

Some would argue that the origin of snakes was pretty much settled back in May, when a landmark paper by  Allison Hsiang and her colleagues was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology“We put together a large dataset comprising both fossil and living snakes and used mathematical models and computer programs to infer ‘ancestral states,'” explains Hsiang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University. The diagram of snake evolutionary relationships they produced, called a phylogenetic tree, is the most robust analysis of snake evolution to date, and it strongly supported the land-based evolution of serpents.

Artist Julius T. Csotonyi’s rendition of the ancestral snake, based on the traits identified in the BMC Evolutionary Biology paper.
Fig. 9 from Hsiang et al. 2015.

Ancestral state analyses, which essentially use math and science to estimate the biological and ecological traits of the most recent common ancestor of a group of species, suggested that early snakes were nocturnal hunters, preying upon the small vertebrates of their era through stealth, not constriction. Their analysis didn’t find that snakes were burrowers, however — there was no strong support of a fossorial lifestyle, just that the snakes lived on land.

According to Hsiang, morphological data “strongly influenced” the snake tree. “Our study helped to demonstrate how important and essential it is to include fossils when we are trying to understand how and when organisms evolved.” In the paper, the authors note that the inclusion of fossil data resulted in relationships that would be “unexpected” given current snakes, and that the fossils’ influence was sustained “even when such data are vastly outnumbered by genetic sequence data,” thus including the new fossil in a similar analysis might be even more informative.

“Now that Martill et al.’s paper on Tetrapodophis has been published, the obvious next step is to include it in large-scale, comprehensive analytical studies looking at snake evolutionary history and phylogenies.”

In The Beginning?

Though there was some excitement when Hsiang and her colleagues published their analysis in May, a paper published a little over a month earlier in PLoS ONE slipped by the press unnoticed. The analysis, led by Tod Reeder from San Diego State University, looked beyond snakes to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships within the squamates, the group of reptiles that contains lizards and snakes. Using the largest dataset to date which, like Hsiang, included both genetic and morphological markers, Reeder and his colleagues affirmed one of the crucial pieces of evidence of a marine snake origin: the close relationship between mosasaurs and snakes.

“The most comprehensive analysis of the lizard evolutionary tree now reinstates these aquatic mosasaurs as the nearest relatives to snakes,” explains Michael Lee, associate professor at the University of Adelaide, who was one of the first scientists to suggest that snakes may have started in the water.

The lizard evolutionary tree, which places the aquatic mosasaurs (Mosasauria) sister to modern snakes (Serpentes) rather than the group used by Hsiang et al. (Anguimorpha).
Fig. 1 from Reeder et al. 2015.

Because of this, Reeder et al. calls into question the methods used by Hsiang et al., specifically one of the core assumptions in the paper: the closest relatives of snakes. When constructing evolutionary trees, assumptions have to be made to “root” the tree, or put the relationships into the context with regards to time. Scientists must compare their data to what is called an “outgroup”, which is ideally the closest relative or relatives to the group of interest. Hsiang and her colleagues used a subset of a group of lizards called anguimorphs, which includes land dwelling lizards like the Komodo dragon.

“The Hsiang paper was a terrific analysis of the evolution within snakes, but the fundamental core assumption they made in the paper was that terrestrial lizards were ancestral to snakes,” said Lee. “The direction of evolution was determined by that assumption. But if you assume, as the Reeder paper suggests, that mosasaurs are ancestral to snakes, then some of the inferences by Hsiang might not hold.”

Hsiang admits that there are differences between the phylogenies in her paper and Reeder’s, and that the choice of outgroup may have skewed their results. “There are differences between the Reeder et al. phylogeny and our phylogeny — it would be interesting to conduct an in-depth analysis to try and determine why the differences in phylogeny exist,” she said. While her team’s tree was strongly influenced by morphology, Reeder’s team found that genetics most strongly predicted the results. “In fact, the morphological data are really ambiguous,” co-author John Wiens said in a press release. “Or in some cases, even worse than ambiguous.”

“There’s certainly a possibility that our results would have been different if we had used different outgroups, as phylogenetic and ancestral state reconstruction analyses use the outgroup to determine the direction and polarity of character state evolution,” said Hsiang. However, she doubts the impact would have been large, as other close relatives of mosasaurs are land-lubbers. “Though the inclusion of mosasaurs would likely have increased the probability of an aquatic lifestyle for early snakes somewhat, this would probably have been “balanced out” by the many anguimorph lizards that are not aquatic.”

“Of course, we’d have to actually run the analysis to know for sure.”

Seeing Through The Bones

Meanwhile, Bruno Simões from the Natural History Museum, London, UK and his colleagues were taking a very different approach to understanding snake evolution. Instead of looking at bones and unrelated genes, they very specifically examined the genes encoding for visual pigments in lizards and snakes. These genes are well-studied, and in other groups like mammals, are correlated with behaviors like burrowing and nocturnal activity.

“Visual pigments, like opsin and rhodopsin, are basically the business front-ends of the visual pathway,” says Simões. “So basically if anything is happening in the visual system, the visual pigments will be the first to be impacted.” Burrowing mammals, for example, have lost some visual pigment genes, as they no longer need them underground. But even more impressively, scientists can connect genetic changes in these pigment genes to ecology and function. “By checking their amino acid composition, you can estimate what kind of wavelengths the animal can see,” says Simões.

When Simões et al. compared the visual pigment genes in snakes to other lizards, they found something exciting: snakes have lost two of the five pigments found in the rest of the squamates. They retain the same three that we have. Simões explained that this means snakes likely went through an “ancestral nocturnal bottleneck,” just like mammals did. “Snakes have this contrasting pattern from lizards that converges with mammals.”

Evolutionary tree for the Rhodopsin 1 gene, the only one left in the most underground snakes.
Figure 1 from Simões et al. 2015.

Interestingly, in fossorial lizards, all five pigments were still around, but in fossorial snakes like the termite-decapitating blindsnakes, only one pigment remained. “The fact that the visual system was not so reduced suggests that the ancestor for all snakes was nocturnal, not fossorial” — a finding which coincides with the ancestral state reconstructions found by Hsiang et al.

As for the question of marine origins, Simões says that he “didn’t find evidence that it was a marine animal.” Marine environments have very different light conditions than terrestrial ones, with a quick loss of red wavelengths with depth, followed by an eventual loss of all light in the deep sea. Marine animals eyes often show a “shift in spectral tuning to a marine environment,” says Simões, which includes a higher sensitivity for blue wavelengths. In sea snakes, for example, the shorter-length opsin 1 becomes blue sensitive instead of UV sensitive. But Simões found no such shift in all snakes.

“I think that it’s a really interesting paper, in that they’ve discovered that snakes have lost a whole bunch of visual genes that are found in other lizards, which does suggest they went through some kind of semi-blind phase in their evolution,” says Lee. But he still would like to see more research before discounting the aquatic hypothesis. “One thing I’d like to see done is what genes are lost in living marine reptiles like sea turtles,” said Lee, to see if there are any opsin genes lost in other marine reptiles like the ones lost in snakes.

A Four-Legged Snake?

Which brings us back to the most recent finding, what Martill and his colleagues claim is a four-legged snake ancestor from Brazil. Though there’s no concrete information about where this fossil originated, the color and texture of the limestone it is encased in suggests it’s from the Crato Formation, a fossil deposit which was laid down some 100 million years ago when the area was a shallow sea.

“The Crato formation is about 20 million years older than the oldest fossil snake,” Martill explained. Thus this ten centimeter-long fossil, which Martill and his colleagues named Tetrapodophis amplectus, may shed light on the earliest snakes.

Artist Julius T. Cstonyi’s recreation of Tetrapodophis amplectus subduing its mammal prey in an early Cretaceous tropical forest in Gondwana. Image provided by Science

“The Martill paper is going to be one of the most controversial papers around for a long time,” said Lee. “I’ve already had about 50 emails from colleagues about it, all expressing really different views.”

“It is a very unusual specimen,” Lee said, “because if it is a snake, it’s a tremendous missing link between lizards and snakes.”

But there are several lineages of lizards with lost or reduced limbs and longer bodies, so the evidence to place it as a snake ancestor must be more than just that. Martill notes that the short length of the tail in relation to the body, structure of the pelvis, impressions of body scales, recurved teeth, high vertebral count and the shape of the vertebrae all make Tetrapodophis a snake. “This thing is much much more of a snake than it is of a lizard,” he concluded. But some scientists don’t buy it. “I think the specimen is important, but I do not know what it is,” University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell told Ed Yong from National Geographic. But Lee is willing to give Martill the benefit of the doubt. “I’m prepared to provisionally accept that it’s a very unusual small snake,” he said. “But the specimen is so small and the skull is so badly crushed that I think there is going to be a lot of debate until all interested researchers are able to look at it.”

“It does seem to have some pretty intriguing snake features,” Lee admits. “Snake teeth have a very distinct curvature to them… and this animal does seem to have that. So that’s one feature that really makes me think this is probably a snake.” He’s also impressed by the animal’s spine. “It’s got a very large number of vertebrae — 160 backbone elements — which is also a very snake-like feature,” he added. “None of the other features that they list do I find particularly compelling.”

Hsiang, on the other hand, is entirely convinced. “Tetrapodophis does seem to possess many anatomical features that are unique to snakes — the recurved teeth, intramandibular joint, vertebral characters, et cetera,” she said. “So, based on Martill et al.’s report of the anatomy, it seems likely that Tetrapodophis is indeed an early snake.” She’s especially intrigued by what else is visible in the new fossil: its last meal. Martill et al. report that inside the snake’s stomach are a collection of vertebral bones, likely from a small mammal or lizard that it ate just before it died — the same diet that Hsiang et al. predicted with their ancestral state analyses. “The new fossil provides empirical confirmation of some of our results,” she noted. “For instance, the discovery of vertebrate bones in the stomach contents of Tetrapodophis aligns with our inference that the earliest snakes likely ate small vertebrates.”

According to Martill et al., the short tail and reduced limbs are evidence that Tetrapodophis was a burrowing snake. “Although this thing has been found in sediments that were laid down in water,” Martill says, “the shortened limbs and the little scoop-like feet that it’s got on its hind limbs look much more like they’re for burrowing than they are for swimming.”

“Also, they wouldn’t really function for swimming,” Martill said. “This thing is almost certainly using lateral undulatory locomotion to burrow through soft sand and leaf litter.”

“I think that’s fairly weak evidence,” said Lee. “There’s no living burrowing lizard or snake with those type of body proportions,” he added. “We can’t really say what it did at the moment, because there are too many contradictory traits in this animal.”

Scoops or paddles? Or something else entirely? Photo Credit: Dave Martill, University of Portsmouth

Lee similarly points to the shape and size of the limbs and feet, but says they provide evidence of an aquatic lifestyle rather than a fossorial one. Species known for their burrowing habits, like moles, have short, squat, strong limb bones, but Tetrapodophis has “long, delicate fingers and toes.” There are also questions about the composition of the bones themselves; bones can vary in the amount of calcium they contain, with more calcium or “more ossified” bones resisting breakage better than less ossified ones. Lee notes that the limbs of Tetrapodophis seem to be fairly poorly ossified.” “That’s not what you find in burrowers because you want your hands and feet to be as robust as possible to push through the soil.” Reduced ossification of limb bones is, however, a trait shared by other aquatic organisms. Furthermore, in the hind feet, two ankle bones that are fused in most lizards are separate. The only other group of lizards where these bones are apart? The aquatic mosasaurs. Rather than seeing the feet as scoop-like, Lee sees them as “paddle-like.” He also noted that the bones of the fingers and toes are perfectly aligned in parallel with one another. “That leads me to think that they were held together in something, like a flipper or sheath.”

All of that and the fact that the animal was found in what, at the time, was a shallow sea, does give credence to the idea that it could be an aquatic snake. “I wouldn’t come out and say that it’s aquatic, because I don’t think we can say that either,” Lee said, “but I don’t think that we can conclude that it’s burrowing.”

“The aquatic idea of snake origins might be the minority view, but there’s enough accumulating evidence now that it needs to be reexamined rather than dismissed out of hand.”

Brazil’s Big Discovery… In Germany?

Though Tetrapodophis is perhaps the most scientifically-intriguing snake fossil to date, questions about how it arrived in Germany are already beginning to overshadow its scientific importance. Even before the paper officially published, rumors swirled about whether the remarkable specimen was illegally poached from Brazil. When I asked Martill about the specimen’s discovery, he was disturbingly cavalier about the fossil’s origins. “More or less, I discovered it,” he said, “I actually found it in a museum collection.”

“It was one of those serendipitous things,” he continued.  “I actually worked on fossils from this location in Brazil for many many years.” But Martill didn’t find Tetrapodophis on an excursion to the jungle; he found it labeled as an “Unknown Fossil” in the Bürgermeister-Müller Museum in Solnhofen, Germany on a routine class trip for his students. It just so happened that when he took his students to see the museum, on display was an exhibit on Brazilian fossils, which Martill — having written a book about the Crato formation — was excited to see. “All of a sudden, my jaw just dropped to the floor,” he recounts. “This looks like a snake!”

When pressed, he admitted that there was no information about the fossil’s origins — when it was found, who pulled it from the earth, and how or why it made its way across the ocean to a small museum in Germany. He was more blunt when he spoke to Herton Escobar (quoted by Sid Perkins for Science). Martill told him that questions about legality are ‘irrelevant to the fossil’s scientific significance’ and said: “Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when.”

As Shaena Montanari explains for Forbes, given the laws in Brazil since 1942, it’s likely that Tetrapodophis found its way to Europe illegally. Brazililan officials have gone as far as to say they’re certain the specimen illegally left the country. Many scientists are expressing their outrage that a prestigious journal like Science would even publish a paper based upon what is likely a black market specimen.

This isn’t the first time Martill has expressed a lack of concern over fossil provenance, as some have noted, and his current comments reveal a deeper pattern of neglect or contempt for other countries and cultures that is, quite frankly, repulsive. Tetrapodophis rightfully belongs to Brazil — it should be displayed in a Brazilian museum, providing income and excitement for Brazilians. And I find it very unsettling that Science would publish a paper on a specimen that it couldn’t provide provenance for. It strikes me as lazy science at best to make claims about a fossil’s origins and its implications for the evolution of a lineage without solid evidence of when and where it came from.

I hope that Martill reconsiders his position on this, and makes an effort to return the specimen to where it belongs.




Martill, Tischlinger & Longrich. (2015). A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa9208

Hsiang et al. (2015). The origin of snakes: revealing the ecology, behavior, and evolutionary history of early snakes using genomics, phenomics, and the fossil record. BMC evolutionary biology, 15(1), 87. doi: 10.1186/s12862-015-0358-5

Reeder et al. (2015) Integrated Analyses Resolve Conflicts over Squamate Reptile Phylogeny and Reveal Unexpected Placements for Fossil Taxa. PLoSONE 10(3): e0118199. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118199

Simões et al. (2015). Visual system evolution and the nature of the ancestral snake. Journal of evolutionary biology 28(7): 1309-1320. doi: 10.1111/jeb.12663

Update: Corrected, as quote about not caring was said to Herton Escobar, not Sid Perkins. Read the full interview between Martill and Escobar here. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

MORE ABOUT: Evolution, Fossil, Snake, Squamates

Temporal range:
Lower Cretaceous – Recent
Texas coral snake
Micrurus tener
Scientific classification
Linnaeus, 1758
Infraorders and Families
  • Alethinophidia - Nopcsa, 1923: All snakes except blind snakes and thread snakes
    • Acrochordidae – Bonaparte, 1831
    • Aniliidae – Stejneger, 1907
    • Anomochilidae – Cundall, Wallach & Rossman, 1993
    • Atractaspididae – Günther, 1858
    • Boidae – Gray, 1825
    • Bolyeriidae – Hoffstetter, 1946
    • Colubridae – Oppel, 1811
    • Cylindrophiidae – Fitzinger, 1843
    • Elapidae – F. Boie, 1827
    • Loxocemidae – Cope, 1861
    • Pythonidae – Fitzinger, 1826
    • Tropidophiidae – Brongersma, 1951
    • Uropeltidae – Müller, 1832
    • Viperidae – Oppel, 1811
    • Xenopeltidae – Bonaparte, 1845
  • Scolecophidia – Cope, 1864: Blind snakes and thread snakes

Snakes are reptiles. They are part of the orderSquamata. They don't have legs, voice, ears, and eyelids. Despite this, snakes are successful carnivores. There are at least 20 families,and about 500 genera and 3,400 species.[1][2]

They have a long, slender body,[3] and are very mobile in their own way. Most of them live in the tropics. Very few snake species live beyond the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn, and only one species, the common viper (Vipera berus) lives beyond the Arctic Circle. Their skin is covered with scales.[3] They can see well enough, and they can taste scents with their tongues by flicking them in and out. They are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground.

Though they do not have a voice, they can hiss. Most snakes live on the ground, others live in the water, and a few live under the soil. Like all reptiles, snakes need the heat of the sun to control their body temperature. That is why most snakes are in the warm, humidtropical regions of the world.[4]

They range in size from the tiny, 10.4 cm (4 inch)-long thread snake[5] to the reticulated python of 6.95 meters (22.8 ft) in length.[6] The fossil Titanoboa was 12.8 meters (42 ft) long.[7]

Evolution[change | change source]

Snakes are thought to have evolved from lizards. The earliest snake fossils are from the Lower Cretaceous.[8] A wide range of snakes appeared during the Paleocene period (c 66 to 56 million years ago).

Not a clade[change | change source]

The Squamata are definitely a monophyletic group: it is a sister group to the Tuatara. Judged by their fossil record, the squamates were present in the Mesozoic, but had a minor place in the land ecology. Three of the six lines are recorded first in the Upper Jurassic, the others in the Cretaceous. Probably all, certainly the lizards, arose earlier in the Jurassic.[9] The Mosasaurs of the Upper Cretaceous were by far the most successful of all the lizards, becoming the top predator in their ecosystem.

Although snakes and lizards look very different, neither is a proper clade. Snakes did descend from early lizards, not once, but a number of times.

There is a monophyletic clade within the Squamata. It is the Toxicofera. It includes all venomous snakes and lizards, and many related non-venomous species. The evidence for this is in recent molecular analyses.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Fossil snakes[change | change source]

The fossil of a primitive snake from the Lower Cretaceous has been found. It lived about 113 million ears ago.[17] It had rather small front and rear legs. Several other fossil snakes have been found with small rear legs, but this is the first one with all four legs. The snake, Tetrapodophis amplectus, lived on land and was adapted to burrowing. The researcher said there were "a lot of very advanced snake features, including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine – and even snake-like scales. And there's the gut contents – it's swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature".[18] The snake came from the Crato Formation in Brazil, and lay in a private collection for many years. It was re-discovered in a museum at Solnhofen, Bavaria.

Venom[change | change source]

Most snakes are nonvenomous. Those that have venom use it mainly to kill and subdue prey rather than for self-defense. Some have venom potent enough to cause painful injury or death to humans. Nonvenomous snakes either swallow prey alive or kill by squeezing.

Two taxonomicfamilies are entirely venomous:

A third family with the "rear-fanged" snakes (and most of the other snake species) is the

Anatomy[change | change source]

Many snakes have skulls with more joints than their lizard ancestors. This helps them swallow prey much larger than their heads. The bones of the head and jaws can move apart to let large prey move into their body. The throat, stomach and intestines can also expand in a most extraordinary manner. In this was, a thin-looking snake can swallow and digest a larger animal.

To fit their narrow bodies, snakes' paired organs (such as kidneys) are one in front of the other instead of side by side, and most snakes have only one working lung. Some species have a pelvic girdle with a pair of vestigial claws on either side of the cloaca. This is a relic of the legs which do not appear in modern snakes.

Shedding[change | change source]

Snakes need to shed their skin regularly while they grow. This is called moulting. Snakes shed their skin by rubbing their head against something rough and hard, like a piece of wood or a rock. This causes the skin, which is already stretched, to split open. The snake keeps on rubbing its skin on various rough objects until the skin peels off from its head. This lets it crawl out, turning the skin inside out.

Feeding[change | change source]

All snakes are carnivorous; they eat other animals. Some are venomous; they inject poison by grooves in their teeth. Constrictors are not venomous, so they squeeze their prey to death. Snakes swallow their food whole, and they cannot chew.[21] Because they are cold-blooded, they do not have to eat so regularly as mammals. People who own pet snakes feed them as infrequently as once per month. Some snakes can go as long as six months without a good meal.

Locomotion[change | change source]

The lack of limbs does not impede the movement of snakes. They have developed several different modes of locomotion to deal with particular environments. Each mode of snake locomotion is discrete and distinct from the others.[22][23]

Lateral undulation[change | change source]

Lateral undulation is the sole mode of aquatic locomotion, and the most common mode of terrestrial locomotion.[23] In this mode, the body of the snake alternately flexes to the left and right, resulting in a series of rearward-moving "waves".[22] While this movement appears rapid, snakes have rarely been documented moving faster than two body-lengths per second, often much less.[24] This mode of movement has the same net cost of transport (calories burned per meter moved) as running in lizards of the same mass.[25]

Terrestrial[change | change source]

Terrestrial lateral undulation is the most common mode of terrestrial locomotion for most snake species.[22] In this mode, the posteriorly moving waves push against contact points in the environment, such as rocks, twigs, irregularities in the soil, etc.[22] Each of these environmental objects, in turn, generates a reaction force directed forward and towards the midline of the snake, resulting in forward thrust while the lateral components cancel out.[26] The speed of this movement depends upon the density of push-points in the environment, with a medium density of about 8 along the snake's length being ideal.[24] The wave speed is precisely the same as the snake speed, and as a result, every point on the snake's body follows the path of the point ahead of it, allowing snakes to move through very dense vegetation and small openings.[26]

Aquatic[change | change source]

Main article: Sea snake

Snakes move forward in water by moving their bodies in a wave-like motion. The waves become larger as they move down the snake's body, and the wave travels backwards faster than the snake moves forwards.[27] Thrust is got by pushing their body against the water: this results in the observed slip. In spite of overall similarities, studies show that the pattern of muscle activation is different in aquatic versus terrestrial lateral undulation, which justifies calling them separate modes.[28] All snakes can laterally undulate forward (with backward-moving waves), but only sea snakes have been observed reversing the motion (moving backwards with forward-moving waves).[22]

[change | change source]

Main article: Sidewinding

This is most often used by colubroid snakes (colubrids, elapids, and vipers). They use it when the environment lacks anything firm to push against, such as a slick mud flat, or a sand dune. Sidewinding is a modified form of lateral undulation in which all of the body segments oriented in one direction remain in contact with the ground, while the other segments are lifted up. This results in a peculiar "rolling" motion.[29][30] This mode of locomotion overcomes the slippery nature of sand or mud by pushing off with only static portions on the body, thereby minimizing slipping.[29] The static nature of the contact points can be shown from the tracks of a sidewinding snake, which show each belly scale imprint, without any smearing. This mode of locomotion has very low caloric cost, less than ⅓ of the cost for a lizard or snake to move the same distance.[25]

Concertina[change | change source]

When push-points are absent, but the space is too narrow for sidewinding, such as in tunnels, snakes rely on concertina locomotion.[22][30] In this mode, the snake braces the back part of its body against the tunnel wall while the front of the snake extends and straightens.[29] The front portion then flexes and forms an anchor point, and the back part is straightened and pulled forwards. This mode of locomotion is slow and very demanding, needing up to seven times the energy of laterally undulating over the same distance.[25] This high cost is due to the repeated stops and starts of portions of the body as well as the need to use the muscles to brace against the tunnel walls.

Rectilinear[change | change source]

The slowest mode of snake locomotion is rectilinear locomotion, which is also the only one where the snake does not need to bend its body laterally, though it may do so when turning.[31] In this mode, the belly scales are lifted and pulled forward before being placed down and the body pulled over them. Waves of movement and stasis pass posteriorly, resulting in a series of ripples in the skin.[31] The ribs of the snake do not move in this mode of locomotion and this method is most often used by large pythons, boas, and vipers when stalking prey across open ground as the snake's movements are subtle and harder to detect by their prey in this manner.[29]

Other[change | change source]

The movement of snakes in trees has only recently been studied.[32] While on tree branches, snakes use several modes of locomotion depending on species and bark texture.[32] In general, snakes will use a modified form of concertina locomotion on smooth branches, but will laterally undulate if contact points are available.[32] Snakes move faster on small branches and when contact points are present, in contrast to limbed animals, which do better on large branches with little 'clutter'.[32]

Gliding snakes (Chrysopelea) of Southeast Asia launch themselves from branch tips, spreading their ribs and laterally undulating as they glide between trees.[29][33][34] These snakes can perform a controlled glide for hundreds of feet depending upon launch altitude and can even turn in midair.[29][33]

Other websites[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Serpentes.
A Mojave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) sidewinding
  1. ↑Serpentes (TSN {{{ID}}}). Integrated Taxonomic Information System.
  2. ↑snake species list at the Reptile Database. Accessed 22 May 2012.
  3. 3.03.1"snake (reptile) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". britannica.com. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  4. "Snake facts". antiguanracer.org. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
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