Physical environments challenge organisms in unique ways. Some deserts, for example, require adaptations to cope with a difficult-to-navigate substrate: sand. Sand sometimes functions as a solid, while other times it functions as a fluid. Not only does the sand itself change behavior, but different animals will interact with sand differently as they move across or through it. Snakes face special challenges when it comes to locomotion because their simplistic body shape limits the number of external morphological characteristics that can be modified through evolution.
Some snakes have developed a method for moving across sand called sidewinding, a movement in which the snake anchors a point of its body on the substrate while lifting the rest of its body forward in a loop until it can anchor to new point farther along. Sidewinding is not as well studied as some other types of locomotion, and many aspects of it remain poorly understood. Several viper species, most not closely related, plus a few other types of snakes have independently specialized in sidewinding.
My dissertation focuses on the evolution and biomechanics of sidewinding. In my first chapter, I explore the evolution of body shape in vipers with respect to specialization for sidewinding and arboreality. That manuscript is currently in preparation. In my second chapter, I look at how sidewinding biomechanics scale in the rattlesnake Crotalus cerastes, and hope to also discover whether subtle morphological differences between individuals influence the motion. In the future, I plan to examine whether snakes face trade-offs between sidewinding and other types of locomotion.