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The Secret of a Snake's Slither (Image 7)


A corn snake

A corn snake.

If you view a snake from the side, you can see that they will often lift parts of themselves from the ground while they slither. The snake's weight is then concentrated on the remaining areas of contact. When researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology incorporated this behavior into a theoretical model, they found increases in both body speed and efficiency.

Snake locomotion may seem simple compared to walking or galloping, but in reality, it's no easy task to move without legs. Previous research had assumed that snakes move by pushing off of the rocks and debris around them, but that didnt explain how they can move in areas where there isnt anything to push on. Then, a National Science Foundation-supported study (grant PHY 08-48894) by David Hu, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech, and his team found that it's all in the snake's design--specifically, their scales.

Overlapping belly scales provide friction with the ground that gives snakes a preferred direction of motion, like the motion of wheels or ice skates. And like wheels and ice skates, sliding forward for snakes takes less work than sliding sideways.

In addition, snakes aren't lying completely flat against the ground as they slither. They redistribute their weight as they move, concentrating it in areas where their bodies can get the most friction with the ground and therefore maximize thrust. In this way, snake slithering is not unlike human walking--we, too, shift our weight from left to right to enable us to move.

To learn more about this research, see the LiveScience article Study shows how snakes slither. (Date of Image: 2009) [Image 7 of 11 related images. See Image 8.]

Credit: ©Grace Pryor, Mike Shelley and David Hu, Applied Mathematics Laboratory, New York University, and Department of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology

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