The sidewinder rattlesnake moves efficiently across sand without slipping by pushing on the ground with parts of its body and lifting the rest sideways.

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The sidewinder rattlesnake is a venomous snake that lives in deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. The snake gets its name from its unusual and efficient way of getting up sandy slopes without slipping. Like most snakes, the sidewinder moves across a surface by bending its body into a curvy S-shape and passing those curves down its body. But instead of sliding straight ahead along the ground, the sidewinder sets only parts of its body on the loose sand while the rest of its body lifts up and moves sideways. This process continues all along the sidewinder’s body, so that each part touches the sand for only a brief time. This appears to help the snake get a firm hold on the sand and travel quickly while limiting total contact time with the hot and unstable sand.

To see sidewinding in action, check out this video of a sidewinding adder on the Smithsonian Channel.

This summary was co-contributed by EcoRise Youth Innovations.

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References

“Some desert vipers, such as a rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes, of the southwestern United States, move across sand by what’s called ‘sidewinding.’ The name refers to perhaps the oddest aspect of the motion, shown in figure 24.7c, the way the overall course of motion takes the snake at nearly a right angle to the heading of its head. As in normal serpentine movement, the snake propagates waves of bending rearward. But it doesn’t slide along a serpentine path that traces the line of contact of those curves with the ground. Instead, it alternately fixes part of the body to the ground, pushing sideways against the sand, and lifts the adjacent part. So a given location of the snake never slides but repeatedly lifts and sets down. The process leaves a set of indentations in the sand at right angles to the snake’s progress. In this way the snake never has to push against anything but a broad expanse of substratum–a good tactic since a sandy substratum doesn’t resist being pushed upon at all well.” (Vogel 2003:489)

Book
Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World, Second EditionPrinceton University PressJune 17, 2013
Steven Vogel

Journal article
Locomotor performance and energetic cost of sidewinding by the snake Crotalus cerastesJournal of Experimental BiologyJanuary 1, 1992
Secor SM; Jayne BC; Bennett AF

Journal article
Sidewinding with minimal slip: Snake and robot ascent of sandy slopesScienceJanuary 1, 2014
Marvi H; Gong C; Gravish N; Astley H; Travers M; Hatton RL; Mendelson JR; Choset H; Hu DL; Goldman DI

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