Creepy but cool: How snakes can move without legs

Besides their forked tongues, probably the main thing that creeps people out about snakes is their ability to move without legs or feet.

(The reason a snake sticks out its tongue, and why it’s forked.)

I have to say, before I started working at the Dickinson County Nature Center, back when I was still petrified of snakes, I hated that about them. It’s just so weird.

But often what is weird about an animal is really amazing.

(See a video about how the nature center snakes are fed.)

A snake’s legless locomotion is possible because of its muscular body. To move, different parts of the body are at rest while others are lifted and pulled. Different locomotions are used to move on different surfaces.

Check out this graphic that has the muscles being used in each movement highlighted in blue.

Graphic about snake motion

But their muscle movement goes beyond even those basics. A study at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, looked at just how it is that snakes can move. Some had speculated that snakes needed twigs or rocks to push against, but you can see in the video of Itsy Bitsy the western fox snake at the Dickinson County Nature Center that she doesn’t need anything to be able to slither around. Or think of the videos you’ve seen of snakes moving through sandy areas. They don’t have anything to push off of either.

So researchers looked at how snake scales help these creatures move without the use of legs. They found that when sliding forward, snakes move easily. However, their scales resist moving backward or sideways.

But, in our video of Itsy Bitsy, she moves in a sidewinding pattern, easily moving from side-to-side. So how does she do that?

Well, researchers again noticed that snakes were moving their scales. Perhaps the muscles to each scale can help them move in such small ways that affect their movement. Or the study found that snakes lift parts of their bodies as they move, concentrating their weight or a few points and moving quicker.

Think of how we control our speed/stealth by the way we walk as well. We go on tip toes to be quiet, but that slows us down. When speed walking, we use much more of our feet.

So, yes, many people find snakes creepy because of how they move. But the fact that snakes can control their movement by using certain muscles, even down to activating different scales on their bodies, that really is quite amazing.

(See a video of the nature center snakes.)

Stop to learn about things that creep you out. You might find them amazing instead.

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