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Tree Snakes: New Study Reveals How Snakes Grip Trees [VIDEO]

Dec 28, 2015 05:56 PM EST
Snakes have unique bellies that allow them to grip tree branches with a variety of bark textures.
(Photo : Flickr: Clemens v. Vogelsang)

Snakes are remarkable climbers, able to scale nearly all types of trees with varying bark textures. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati recently took a closer look at how some of these slithering animals perform their acrobatic tricks.  

For their study, a team of researchers led by Biology Professor Bruce Jayne examined three different species: Stout and heavy boa constrictors, medium-weight corn snakes and the slender and agile brown tree snakes, according to a news release.

Compared to most snakes that have a more circular shape, brown tree snakes have flat bellies that resemble loaves of bread with a rounded top and bottom corners -- also known as keels -- where skin on either side of the belly is folded. It turns out these sharp-edged keels improve a snake's climbing ability and allow them to exploit subtle nooks and crannies in tree bark to prevent slipping, researchers say. Furthermore, these snakes are able to propel themselves up a tree quickly, making it easier to capture their prey and evade predators. While corn snakes also have this flat-bellied shape, boa constrictors are more round.

A tree's bark can vary from being very smooth to having ridges of various heights. To test the snakes' tree-slinging talents, researchers created artificial branches that were positioned at various degrees of steepness and were either smooth or had a variety of pegs to simulate ridges.

"Our most notable finding is how the keel helps to prevent slipping and can allow snakes to use a type of crawling that not only is fast but also probably saves energy," Jayne explained. "This becomes more important as the surface steepness increases. For example, the brown tree snakes were able to climb straight up a vertical cylinder by only pushing against pegs that were a mere one mm high." (Scroll to read more...)

When testing the snakes on smooth cylinders that lacked pegs, all three species used an accordion-like movement as S-shaped portions of their bodies periodically stopped and squeezed the cylinder while another portion was straightened and extended uphill.

Their findings, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, have implications for bio-inspired robots and new methods to prevent snake invasion.

"By understanding what allows (brown tree snakes) to move so quickly and efficiently up vertical obstacles, we can hopefully design unfriendly surfaces to prevent invasive species like the brown tree snakes in Guam from getting into areas where they are causing harm," Jayne concluded, adding that brown tree snakes are not indigenous to Guam, but were probably introduced by cargo ships during and after World War II.

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