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News Release 09-121

The Secret of a Snake's Slither

Mathematicians uncover the hidden patterns and movements that snakes use to move without legs

A snake coiled with its head up looking to the left
View video

How do snakes move without legs? It took a mathematician to figure it out.


June 9, 2009

View a video of researchers explaining how snakes move without legs.

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Snake locomotion may seem simple compared to walking or galloping. But in reality, it's no easy task to move without legs. Previous research has assumed that snakes move by pushing off of rocks and debris around them. But a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that it's all in their 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. 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.

-NSF-

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Dana W. Cruikshank, NSF, (703) 292-7738, email: dcruiksh@nsf.gov

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