Snakes may appear to move swiftly across the ground, but they actually move slower compared with many other animals. Garter snakes, pythons, and some other snakes have been timed at a speed of only 1 mile per hour. The fastest speed on record is that of an African black mamba, which was timed at a speed of 7 miles per hour over a short distance. In comparison, human beings can easily run short distances at 10 to 15 miles per hour.
Snakes have four main methods of moving about: (1) lateral undulation, (2) rectilinear movement, (3) concertina movement, and (4) sidewinding. Some snakes also move in other, unusual ways.
Lateral Undulation (also known as Serpentine) is the most common way in which snakes move about. The snake flexes its muscles to produce a series of horizontal waves from head to tail. The loops of its body push against rocks, plants, twigs, or rough areas on a surface. In this manner, the snake's body is propelled forward.
All snakes can swim by producing the wavelike motions typical of lateral undulation. But sea snakes have a body shape that makes them especially good swimmers. The body is flattened from side to side, and the tail forms an oarlike paddle.
Rectilinear Movement (also known as Creeping) is used by many snakes to climb trees or move through narrow burrows. In addition, many thick-bodied snakes, such as puff adders and pythons, may use rectilinear movement when crawling along on the ground.
In rectilinear movement, the snake contracts certain muscles that pull its belly scales forward. The back edges of the scales catch on bark or rough areas in the soil. The snake then contracts other muscles, which pushes the scales against the bark or rough areas and so moves the body forward.
Rat snakes and many other climbing snakes have belly scales especially suited to rectilinear movement. The edges of the scales are squared, and they easily catch on bark as the snake creeps up a tree.
Concertina Movement is often used by snakes to climb through trees or move over smooth surfaces. The snake moves the front part of its body forward and coils it slightly, pressing against the surface to anchor itself. The snake then pulls its back end forward and coils it. The back end is pressed down, providing leverage for the front part to move forward again.
Sidewinding is used chiefly by certain snakes that live in areas with loose soil or sand. These snakes include the sidewinder of North America and the carpet viper and horned viper of Africa. In sidewinding, the snake's head and tail serve as supports. The snake lifts the trunk of its body off the ground and moves it sideways. The snake then moves its head and tail into position with the rest of its body. It then repeats the sequence.
Unusual Ways of Moving. Many small species of snakes seem to "jump" when trying to escape from danger. They hurl the body forward or to the side by rapidly straightening up from a coiled position. Two gliding snakes of southern Asia can "parachute" from a high limb to a lower one or from one tree to another. They spread their rids, which flattens the body and so helps slow the fall.
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This page was last updated on March 14, 2014.