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Tree Hugging Snakes Hang on For Dear Life

Aug 20, 2014 12:30 PM EDT

It appears that tree-climbing snakes may actually be afraid of heights - or at least you'd think so based on how tightly they grip branches. Researchers have found that when a snake climbs a tree, it holds on up to five times harder than necessary.

A simple pipe wrapped in tennis grip may not seem like a particularly impressive piece of lab tech, but that's all researchers needed to finally measure the grip of tree pythons, constrictors and other climbing snakes.

According a study recently published in the journal Biology Letters, a series of small sensors lining the pipe determined that all 10 snakes tested gripped the pipe much tighter than they needed to when climbing to an elevated height, burning more energy in the process.

Greg Byrnes, who authored the study, claims that this may indicate that snakes value safety precautions over efficiency.

"What's interesting about this, is it's a choice by the animal to do more than they necessarily need to do," he told BBC News. "In other fields of biology, you see large safety factors, but this was the first time anyone's really tested something where the animal's choosing to give itself a safety factor."

Five species were tested in total, but Byrnes was especially surprised that boa constrictors appear to value a "safety first" climbing tactic just as much as the next snake.

Constrictors are infamous for their ability to squeeze just enough when killing prey, always stopping their deadly chokehold at the very moment their prey's heart stops. This helps the snake conserve valuable energy, as literally squeezing the life out of a meal can be hungry work.

They thought that the constrictors would employ the same cold efficiency when climbing trees, only holding on as tight as would be needed to support their significant weight. However, it turns out these snakes are just as cautious as the rest of us.

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