Sidewinder Locomotion

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.

Tracks in the Sahara Desert near Merzouga, Morocco.
Tracks in the Sahara Desert near Merzouga, Morocco.

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.

A juvenile sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes) sidewinds to escape a perceived predator (Homo sapiens) in the Mojave Desert, California, United States.
A juvenile sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes) sidewinds to escape a perceived predator (Homo sapiens) in the Mojave Desert, California, United States.

I plan to study the biomechanics and evolution of sidewinding in the Higham Lab at University of California, Riverside.

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