The Mystery of How Snake Bellies Grip Trees and Branches

First Posted: Dec 27, 2015 10:31 AM EST

Snake bellies may be allowing scientists to "get a grip." Researchers are taking a closer look at the bellies of snakes to figure out how diverse snakes species crawl and climb almost everywhere, including tree branches with variable bark texture.

The researchers examined three different species to investigate how they slither along tree branches. More specifically, they looked at boa constrictors, corn snakes and brown tree snakes.

Unlike most snakes that have a nearly circular cross section shape, brown tree snakes look more like a loaf of bread where the top is rounded but the bottom has corners, called keels, where the skin on either side of the belly is folded. These sharply contoured keels are the key for how various sea snakes can exploit subtle nooks and crannies in tree bark and not slip.

"Our most notable finding is how the keel helps to prevent slipping and can allow snakes to use a type of crawling that not only is fast but also probably saves energy," said Bruce Jayne, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This becomes more important as the surface steepness increases. For example, the brown tree snakes were able to climb straight up a vertical cylinder by only pushing against pegs that were 1 mm high."

For steep smooth cylinders that lacked any pegs, all three snake species used an accordion-like movement as S-shaped portions of the snake periodically stopped and squeezed the cylinder while another portion of the body was straightened and extended uphill.

"By understanding what allows (brown tree snakes) to move so quickly and efficiently up vertical obstacles, we can hopefully design unfriendly surfaces to prevent invasive species like the brown tree snakes in Guam from getting into areas where they are causing harm," said Jayne.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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