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Unique Robots Reveal Secrets of Sidewinder Snake [VIDEO]

Oct 09, 2014 05:16 PM EDT

A unique slithering robot is revealing the secrets of the sidewinder snake, whose ability to quickly climb sandy slopes has long puzzled scientists, according to a new study.

Sidewinder snakes are extremely adept at shimmying up sandy slopes, though their method looks unusual - they seem to hoist themselves up one body segment at a time. However bizarre, it's rather effective, so researchers set out to figure out how this sand-friendly movement worked.

"The desert sidewinder is really extraordinary, with perhaps the fastest and most efficient natural motion we've ever observed for a snake," Ross Hatton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, said in a statement.

A team from Carnegie Mellon University specially designed a snake-like robot to mimic the movement. The robot could move sort of like a sidewinder on flat sand, but struggled with the same sandy inclines that the real snakes could easily manage. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Carnegie Mellon University)

"Our initial idea was to use the robot as a physical model to learn what the snakes experienced," lead author Dan Goldman explained. "By studying the animal and the physical model simultaneously, we learned important general principles that allowed us to not only understand the animal, but also to improve the robot."

Goldman and his colleagues - a group of researchers from Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Oregon State, and Zoo Atlanta - observed the venomous sidewinder rattlesnake species (Crotalus cerastes) as it moved in a large enclosure at Zoo Atlanta filled with sand from the Arizona desert, its native habitat.

They determined that the key is simply increasing the amount of their body area in contact with the granular surfaces they're climbing.

Understanding the mystery behind the motion of these sidewinders isn't just for biology purposes either - it has real-life implications, too.

"If a robot gets stuck in the sand, that's a problem, especially if that sand happens to be on another planet," Hatton said. "Sidewinders never get stuck in the sand, so they are helping us create robots that can avoid getting stuck in the sand. These venomous snakes are offering something to humanity."

The study and robot's design are described in further detail in the journal Science.


[Credit: Georgia Tech]

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