Why do the snakes living in deserts move sideways?

Snakes usually move thorough lateral undulation, wherein it slithers on the ground moving forward through alternating contraction and relaxations of muscles. However, snakes living in the desert, move sideways in the crumbly, hot, sandy soils.

Sidewinding is the term used to refer to the sideway of movements of snakes. It is a special adaptation of the species for them to crawl over unstable surfaces that would not provide them much firm frictional base. Moreover, it allows them to have only certain points of their body contact the hot sand at a given time, preventing their body from overheating.

This type of locomotion is distinct to caenophidian snakes, that are forced to move across slippery and loose grounds. Species, such as the horned desert viper, and the sidewinder rattlesnake, use them to navigate along the friable sands of the desert. However, Southeast Asian Homalopsine snakes also evolved to sidewind over mudflats on coastal wetlands.

So, how do snakes do sidewinding? The snake lifts only the anterior part of its body, moves it few centimeters to the side, and then rests that part of the sand. That provides them a seemingly lifted loop, which will progress along its body down to the end of its tail. Once the sequence ends, the snakes have already moved its entire body to the side from its initial point. Prior to the completion of the first loop, the snake has already begun lifting its anterior part and repeating the process. Through that, it allows continued movement, and the snake appears like a coiled spring, moving across the sandy soil.

Since the snake’s body remains in contact with the ground, ‘footprints’ of its underside can be observed in the tracks. Its impressions are usually as long as the snake. Sidewinding allows the snake to only have minimal contact against the hot sand. Thus, allowing the snake to thrive in such an environment where constant full contact can be lethal for them.

Desert snakes also use sidewinding to climb crumbly, sandy slopes by arching the part of their body in contact with the surface to equalize the decreased yielding power of the titled sand. Through that, it enables them to ascent the highest possible slopes without slipping.

A certain type of rattlesnake actually got its name from the sidewinding movement. Sidewinder rattlesnakes, or the horned rattlesnake, is a venomous pit viper belonging to the Crotalus family and is typically found on the desert regions of northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Sidewinders have incredible maneuverability and travel very quickly in the desert.

They can reach a speed of up to 18 miles per hour or 29 kilometers per hour. Sidewinders have no issue moving loose sand or gravel. With that, scientist acknowledges their ability and built robots that can imitate their movements. Through that, they can study and research on how to make machines or vehicles that can navigate across any type of land. Inventing such machines can immensely help scientists carry out various scientific projects, such as doing jobs that are risky for humans, like inspecting nuclear power plants, and going inside pipes. They are also aimed at other applications, from search-and-rescue, surgeries, and even exploring other planets.

More Readings:

Sidewinding (Wikipedia)

Related Posts: