Snakes can be deceptively fast, and they move in a variety of different ways. Sometimes this involves propulsion into a straight line, and in others, a snake will zigzag.
Snakes move by arching the bones in their back and pushing down. This applies pressure to their underbelly scales and allows them to propel themselves forward. These scales prevent the skin on the stomach from wearing thin.
There is much to learn about how snakes move, and some of it may surprise you. This article will look at the four methods used by these vertebrates to reach their destination.
Do Snakes Slither or Crawl?
There is one thing surrounding a snake’s movement that needs to be determined. Do snakes slither, or do snakes crawl on their belly?
Both are technically correct, but language experts insist on using the word slither. This term was first used in 1839, exclusively to describe a snake’s movement. The etymology of the word is a combination of two Olde English terms:
- Slidder, meaning to slip and slide
- Slidrian, meaning to slip and slide on a loose slope
However, the word crawl also applies to snake movement. This means that it is acceptable to use this term as there is not a single correct usage.
How Does a Snake Slither?
So, we have established that a snake slithers (or crawls), but how? How do these reptiles move without legs?
Shocking though it may be, snakes formerly did have legs. The reptiles that we now understand have just evolved not to need them. As National Geographic explains, the fossil of a long-extinct four-legged snake was discovered and named Tetrapodophis.
Of course, this does not answer the question as to how these now-limbless reptiles move around. The short answer is by using their backbone to apply pressure to their belly and maneuvering this way. However, we need to dig deeper into the four different snake movement styles.
Snake Movement Types
There are four ways that a snake will move:
1) The Serpentine Method
This is the movement that most people associate with a snake. It involves pushing themselves off a Launchpad, such as a rock, and forming a curved shape.
The snake then pushes with their neck muscles, which sends a message to the bones in their spine. There are up to 400 of these bones in a snake’s body. The reptile will then wiggle from left to right, moving forward each time.
The most resistance the snake meets in the ground, the fast they will move. Every time they come across a stone, rock or hole in the ground, it’s another launching point.
This is a variation of the serpentine method. Sidewinding involves curling the body into an ‘s’ shape. The snake then will lift every part of their body from the ground except their tail.
Pushing forward with the head, the snake then thrusts sideways, hence the name of the movement. They will continually do this until they reach their destination or the terrain changes.
Sidewinding is effective because it involves barely touching the ground. This makes it particularly efficient on a slippery or smooth surface with no launching points.
3) The Rectilinear Method (aka The Caterpillar Method)
This method of movement is similar to that of a caterpillar. Again, it’s similar to the serpentine method. However, it involves the body moving up and down, rather than left to right.
This is a slow way for a snake to move. They are finding a grip on the ground, and methodically shuffling their way forward. Conversely, this may be one occasion that a snake could undeniably be described as crawling.
4) The Concertina Method
This is how a snake climbs, of gets themselves out a tight space. For example, a log that they have been hiding in.
The concertina method involves the snake arching their back, looking for a rough surface to grip. Once they find something, the snake will thrust forward, as though they are attempting to roll over.
They will hold onto this grip point, and pull the rest of their body up. The snake will then repeat this process until they reach their destination. That’s why snakes can climb some walls.
Are Snakes Very Active in the Wild?
Most snakes will not move that much in the wild. These reptiles are secretive and shy by nature, preferring to hide. After all, birds of prey and large mammals hunt snakes. If they maneuver large open spaces, they could be spotted and are unable to protect themselves.
This means that snakes will not move very much, often finding shelter and staying put. This is why some pet snakes can find a large terrarium stressful and need a minimum of two hides. Some snakes will be instinctively afraid to cross a large, open area in a habitat.
Can Snakes Move in a Straight Line?
Snakes are capable of moving in a straight line, using the rectilinear method. This will not be their first choice as it takes so long. A snake will only move in a straight line if they can’t slither.
Can Snakes Move Backwards?
Snakes cannot move backward while on land, even using the rectilinear method. This is due to the scales on a snake’s underbelly that they use to maneuver.
These scales are overlapping, almost like the tiles of a rooftop, and designed for the forward movement. Slithering in reverse is virtually impossible as a result.
How Do Snakes Move in Water?
All snakes can swim as a matter of instinct. However, a land snake in the sea is at risk of tiring and drowning. If a snake does find itself in water, it swims using the serpentine method.
The water provides enough propulsion points to keep a snake moving constantly. This should enable the snake to reach dry land.
There are around fifty species of underwater snake, all of which are members of the cobra family. These reptiles still have lungs, and they periodically need to return to the surface to breathe.
However, they can hold their breath for up to an hour at a time. Sea snakes, such as the Belcher sea snake, are highly venomous but they will only bite if threatened. They also have small fangs that cannot penetrate the average diving suit.
How Do Snakes Climb Trees?
Snakes rely upon the concertina method of movement to climb. They wrap their mass around a tree trunk and use their muscles to move up. That’s how rattlesnakes climb trees.
This can take quite some time. The snake is also reliant on the bark of the tree containing enough grip for their scales. It is not unheard of for a snake to fall while attempting to climb a tree. These reptiles do not have any organic ‘grip’ on their bellies.
Some snakes love to climb, even choosing to live and hunt in trees. Most ground-swelling snakes will prefer to remain on terra firma. Climbing a tree takes a long time, and that exposes a snake to potential predators.
How Fast Does a Snake Move?
The fastest snake in the world is also one of the deadliest. The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) can keep pace with many humans.
This snake can move at a pace of around 12.5 mph. The average human can run at 15 mph, but this is too close for comfort. The venom of a black mamba can kill you in under 20 minutes. Thankfully, the black mamba is not native to America.
Of course, not all breeds of snake are this rapid. At the other end of the spectrum, we have constrictor snakes. The substantial mass of these snakes means they move considerably slower. The average boa constrictor may struggle to move any faster than 1 mph.
It’s not just surface speed that we need to think about with snakes. If confronted by a venomous breed in the wild, keep your distance. As the BBC explains, snakes can strike four times in the blink of a human eye. This means that a snake may not even need to slither toward a target to bite.
All of this is ignoring a simple truth, though. If you encounter a snake, you should not run away. Instead, stay very still while remembering that the snake will be just as afraid of you. Maybe even more so. Hold your ground, making slow steps backward if you must.
Most importantly, leave the snake alone to seek an escape route. The chances are that you can both go about your business without any need for a confrontation.
The way that snakes move is endlessly fascinating. Next time you see a snake in the wild, take a step back and observe. You will be watching a marvel of animal evolution in action. Just take a moment to think about all those tiny bones working in tandem to get a snake to its destination.