In the old Wild West movies, one often hears one cowboy call another cowboy a “sidewinder”. It’s a derogatory term for someone who is dishonest and sneaky. The name fits well with the namesake, a snake that moves sideways in order to get around.
People would often wonder how this reptile could move in such a way and now scientists are sure they’ve discovered their secret.
One physicist, Dr. Daniel I. Goldman from Georgia Tech actually studies animal motion and with teaming up with some biologists and robotics experts they studied the way this unusual snake’s unique locomotion.
Dr. Goldman says he’s been interested in the way animals move on sand. The granular makeup of the sand as well as the mechanics of moving on it he’s even studied the sandfish, a wee lizard that appears to swim in sand. A desert dweller really got the doctor’s attention and with his team from Carnegie Mellon and Zoo Atlanta they brought in some live sidewinders and around 400 pounds of sand from the Arizona deserts then built an experimental incline slope and included an air system to keep the sand even after each experiment.
Using high speed videotape the scientists then analyzed the way the sidewinders moved. Their first observation was that the creature didn’t dig deeper even if the incline on the slopes was increased. The snake maintains a greater amount of its body while in contact with the sand as it proceeds by lifting other parts. To see this the researchers built a model of the snake’s movements. They observed two waves, staggered, that ran from head to tail. One wave goes horizontal and parallel to the ground and one vertical like an ocean’s ave. In unison these motions lift the snake’s body to propel it forward. Then the team did the amazing thing by creating and programming a robot to mimic the sidewinder’s locomotion.
The final results were published in the journal Science.
The researchers now see how this form of traveling can assist robots or other mechanisms when moving across sand.
They also found out that not all snakes can do the sidewinder when they tested 13 different types of snakes and only one could make it.