Snakes on a rope: Researchers take a unique look at the climbing abilities of boa constrictors

Nov 30, 2010 By Dawn Fuller
Snakes on a rope: Researchers take a unique look at the climbing abilities of boa constrictors

(PhysOrg.com) -- In a unique study involving young boa constrictors, University of Cincinnati researchers put snakes to work on varying diameters and flexibility of vertical rope to examine how they might move around on branches and vines to gather food and escape enemies in their natural habitat. The findings by Greg Byrnes, a University of Cincinnati postdoctoral fellow in the department of biological sciences, and Bruce C. Jayne, a UC professor of biology, are published in the December issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology.

For many Americans, it was the most dreaded moment in gym class: the challenge to wrap oneself around a vertical rope and climb as high as possible. Some of us couldn't even get off the floor. But for other – even with no arms, no hands, no legs and no feet – that climbing ability is a necessity to survive.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The UC researchers sent the climbing up varying widths and tensions of ropes as they explored snake movement in relation to their musculoskeletal design and variation in their environment.

They found that regardless of diameter or flexibility of the rope, the snakes alternated curving between left and right as they climbed the ropes. On the thicker ropes, they were able to move greater portions of their bodies forward as they climbed. As the ropes became thinner and more flimsy, the snakes used more of their bodies – including their back, sides and belly – to manipulate the rope for climbing.

"Despite the likely physical and energetic challenges, the benefits of the ability to move on narrow and compliant substrates might have large ecological implications for animals," write the authors. "Arboreal organisms must often feed or hunt in the terminal branch niche, which requires the ability to move safely on narrow and compliant substrates."

Jayne points out that although the large muscles of boa constrictors make them fairly stocky and heavy compared to other snakes, this anatomy probably increases their strength. All of the snakes gripped the ropes using a concertina mode of locomotion, which is defined by some regions of the body periodically stopping while other regions of the body extend forward. "It turns out boa constrictors are strong enough so that they can support their weight with a modest number of gripping regions," adds Jayne.

The researchers say their findings are the first study that has explicitly examined the combined effects of diameter and compliance on how an animal gets around. Future research is underway to compare differing muscular anatomies in snakes and relate it to their function in terms of their behavior and their environment.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

More information: jeb.biologists.org/current.dtl

Related Stories

Girl power: Female boa constrictor doesn't need a male

Nov 03, 2010

In a finding that upends decades of scientific theory on reptile reproduction, researchers at North Carolina State University have discovered that female boa constrictors can squeeze out babies without mating.

Jump rope aerodynamics

Nov 22, 2010

Jump ropes are used by kids for fun and by athletes for training. But what about the underlying physics? How do jump ropes work? Can important engineering principles be studied?

Flying snakes, caught on tape (w/ Video)

Nov 23, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- New video analysis and mathematical modeling by engineers at Virginia Tech reveals how certain types of snakes can "fly" by flinging themselves off their perches, flattening their bodies, ...

Snakes Hear in Stereo

May 16, 2008

Physicists from the University Munich in Germany and the University of Topeka, Kansas have strong new evidence that snakes can hear through their jaws. Snakes don't have outer ears, leading to the myth that they can't hear ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.