Snakes can be polarizing, some people love them, while others absolutely despise them.
Whether you love them or hate them, one thing we can all agree on is they are fascinating creatures. For instance, how do snakes move?
How does something without any legs move so seemingly effortlessly across nearly any surface? If you’ve ever watched a snake glide across the ground, it looks like magic, but physics has to be applied somewhere, right?
Other questions you may ask include, can snakes move across any surface? Can all snakes swim?
How do snakes climb trees and move across loose sand? All these questions and more will be answered here, so keep on reading.
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What Surfaces Can Snakes Move Across?
The short answer to this question is nearly any surface. For any kind of movement to happen, some kind of friction is needed. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to delve deep into physics and all of Newton’s laws of motion.
Snakes can move across rough surfaces, as well as smooth surfaces. Although when a snake encounters polished surfaces such as glass, they don’t slither as quickly as it could on rougher terrains such as rocky ground.
First-Hand Experience With A Climbing Snake
Snakes can also swim, and climb surfaces such as trees and even straight vertical inclines. I experienced that firsthand when a snake was climbing up my bedroom walls late one night. Here’s that story.
In my teenage years, back in the wild, untamed land of Louisiana, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. It was late at night, the lights were off but I was up playing video games. I had the sound down because I was the only one awake, but I kept hearing slight sounds.
My walls were covered in posters of rock stars, and other teenage idols, and it sounded like someone was tapping or bending them. I would hear the crinkle of paper every few seconds, so I got up and turned the light on.
In the corner, just above my bed was a 4 or 5-foot-long black, thick, rope shimmying up the walls. At first, I wondered who put that there, then I realized I was looking at some kind of black snake.
It was using the pushpins and posters to propel itself up to the ceiling. I wasn’t frightened, because I’ve been around snakes nearly all my life, but seeing a wild snake—and a species I wasn’t familiar with—so close to where I would have been sleeping was a little disconcerting.
We were able to relocate it outside safely after we realized it was just a western rat snake, and not anything venomous. I have seen rattlesnakes in Louisiana, and there are other venomous species in the state as well.
Now let’s get back on track and find out exactly how snakes are able to get from one place to another without limbs.
Different Types Of Snake Movement
Snakes don’t just glide or slither across the ground. They have 5 distinct methods of locomotion. The first four methods were once thought to be the only ways snakes could move, but recently scientists have discovered a new way snakes can move and climb up smooth cylindrical surfaces.
The first movement type is called Serpentine, or Lateral Undulation. This is the most widely used movement snakes use and it’s the usual side-to-side swaying motion they use to travel over most surfaces.
This type of movement works because the snake uses multiple friction points to propel its body forward. The head and “neck” of the snake are usually hovering just above the surface and determine which direction the snake moves.
Using Serpentine movement, the snake constricts and relaxes muscles that are touching the ground to push its body forward. Their scales help with this movement as well as they help to create friction points.
Snakes have wider scales across their bellies called scutes. These scales overlap each other and are backward facing which helps to create traction, much like mud tires on vehicles.
When you see snakes moving side to side, and their bodies are hypnotically weaving from left to right they are using lateral undulation or the serpentine movement. When snakes swim, they use this same method, except they use the tail to propel them.
The Concertina method of movement isn’t used by snakes much though it seems to us to be the simplest way to move. For snakes though, this kind of movement is very exhausting.
For a creature that usually only eats once a week or as little as once a year, this high-energy movement isn’t ideal.
When snakes use the Concertina method of locomotion, they push the front half of their bodies forward first. This takes a lot of muscle energy. Try laying flat on the ground and lifting up your upper torso without using your arms, it’s difficult.
After the snake pushes the first half of its body forward, it then pulls the back half forward into tight curves or coils. This method of movement, not only burns a lot of energy, but it’s not a very quick way to get somewhere.
Snakes use this type of movement in small, narrow areas or when climbing trees. Boas and other tree snakes will send the front half of their bodies forward to reach another branch or a place to pull themselves up when climbing.
This type of movement has been specialized in sandy, desert climates where other forms of movement just aren’t very effective. Trying to slither in a serpentine motion on sand won’t get a snake very far.
One particular snake figured out how to move on this low-friction surface and how to do it well. The sidewinder rattlesnake not only has some strange moves, but it’s the fastest snake in the world.
In sidewinding movement, the snake only has two points of its body touching the ground at a time. This also helps to keep the snake from getting too hot on the scorching desert sands.
The snake uses its tail as an anchor and then throws its head forward. While curled in an exaggerated S pattern, the front part of the snake touches the ground and slides back toward the tail. The tail then lifts and moves forward to anchor itself again as the head lurches forward as well.
This movement is one of the slower ways a snake moves, but it’s also a very quiet and stealthy way to move. Most prey animals such as rabbits, mice, and rats are especially good at detecting movement.
When a snake uses the Rectilinear mode of transportation, only specialized belly muscles move, giving the snake the appearance it’s magically sliding across the ground. The snake tightens and loosens small sections of muscles at a time and it inches silently across the ground.
While using rectilinear motion, the snake usually stays in a straight line. The backward-facing scutes hold tight to the ground as the stomach muscles constrict, then inch forward slowly.
Snakes use this method to sneak up on prey or travel through small burrows and holes. It’s also the preferred method for larger snakes to get around. They can leisurely glide forward while remaining quiet and expending very little energy.
A New Form Of Movement Has Recently Been Discovered
If you’ve had birdhouses on your property, you know snakes love to climb inside and eat the inhabitants, especially when they have eggs or baby birds. So you put a wide, cylindrical cone around the pole to keep snakes and other predators out.
While that may have been a way to protect the little birdies inside, scientists have discovered that snakes can still climb up smooth vertical surfaces. They have named this new form of movement Lasso Locomotion.
Not all snakes have displayed this type of movement, but it doesn’t mean more could learn this behavior.
How Lasso locomotion works is the snake takes its tail and loops it around the cylinder then hooks itself around its body. It creates a rope or noose-like anchor that holds tight to the smooth surface, then the snake slowly inches its body up the cylinder.
This type of movement is exhausting for the snake because it really pushes them to its limits. While employing Lasso locomotion, the snake has to stop to rest frequently.
It would be similar to a human climbing a telephone pole with no aids; only using their arms and legs to shimmy up to the top.
Multiple Methods At One Time
Most times snakes use more than one type of movement at one time.
They may use rectilinear as well as concertina to move faster or to get over certain rough terrain. Snakes that climb trees use both of these methods to get up to the upper canopy.
There they wait for birds, monkeys, lizards, frogs, or other potential meals to get close.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can all snakes swim?
A: Yes, all snakes can swim, but some snakes swim better than others. They swim by either using the surface tension of the water to keep them afloat and by waving their tails back and forth, or they swim under the surface.
Anacondas keep their bodies submerged while swimming, often only keeping their nostrils above water, or staying completely submerged as they traverse the waters.
Sea snakes have evolved flattened, oar-like tails to help them swim vast distances with minimal energy expended.
Can all snakes climb trees?
A: Most snakes have developed ways to climb up trees, but not all snakes can. Some snakes climb by wrapping themselves completely around the tree then stretching their head above and recoiling their body farther up.
Other snakes use the Concertina method combined with other movements to get up into the branches of trees.
Pythons, boas, rat snakes, and even rattlesnakes can climb trees, but most times they stay on the ground where they are more comfortable.
Can snakes fly?
A: No, snakes cannot fly, although there are a few species that can glide in the air from treetops. The Paradise tree snake has been observed jumping from the tops of trees to glide to another tree.
They do this by flattening out their bodies to create more surface area, and then they undulate back and forth in the Serpentine method. These two movements help the snake stay stable in the air and allows them to cover more distance. So, snakes can’t fly, but some can glide a fair distance.
That’s A Wrap
Snakes have pretty unique ways of moving. They would have to get pretty creative since they don’t have legs to move around. Inching along like a caterpillar just wouldn’t do it when you’re trying to hunt down a swift mouse or other quick-moving creature.
By using movement methods such as Concertina, Serpentine, Sidewinding, Rectilinear, or the newly discovered Lasso Locomotion, snakes can get about anywhere they want to go. Snakes can swim across bodies of water, traverse the scorching desert sands, or climb trees with ease.
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