Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Physics of snakeskin sheds light on sidewinding

The sidewinder rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes) is found in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. (Photo by Wolfgang Wuster)

Most snakes get from A to B by bending their bodies into S-shapes and slithering forward headfirst. A few species, however — found in the deserts of North America, Africa and the Middle East — have an odder way of getting around. Known as “sidewinders,” these snakes lead with their mid-sections instead of their heads, slinking sideways across loose sand. 

Scientists took a microscopic look at the skin of sidewinders to see if it plays a role in their unique method of movement. They discovered that sidewinders’ bellies are studded with tiny pits and have few, if any, of the tiny spikes found on the bellies of other snakes. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the discovery, which includes a mathematical model linking these distinct structures to function. 

“The specialized locomotion of sidewinders evolved independently in different species in different parts of the world, suggesting that sidewinding is a good solution to a problem,” says Jennifer Rieser, assistant professor of physics at Emory University and a first author of the study. “Understanding how and why this example of convergent evolution works may allow us to adapt it for our own needs, such as building robots that can move in challenging environments.”

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