World news – Scientists discover a bizarre new way of snake movement


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January 11, 2021

from Colorado State University

A team of researchers from Colorado State University and the University of Cincinnati have discovered a new type of snake movement that enables the brown tree snake to climb much larger smooth cylinders than any previously known behavior.

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This lasso movement, named because of a lasso-like posture, can contribute to the success and effectiveness of this highly invasive type. It gives these animals access to potential prey that might otherwise not be available, and may also explain how this species can climb electricity pylons and cause power outages.

The study « Lasso Locomotion Expands Snake Climbing Repertoire » was published in Current Biology on January 11th.

For nearly 100 years, all snake locomotion has traditionally been divided into four modes: rectilinear, sideways ripple, crosswind, and accordion.

This new discovery was a fifth mode of locomotion the unexpected result of a project by retired CSU professor Julie Savidge to protect the nests of Micronesia starlings, one of only two native forest species that still live on Guam.

Savidge, part of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the CSU said the brown tree snake decimated forest bird populations on Guam, where the discovery took place. The nocturnal snake was accidentally introduced to Guam in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Shortly thereafter, bird populations began to decline.

The scientist did her doctoral thesis on Guam in the 1980s and identified the snake as the culprit for the loss of birds. The animal has caused significant damage and is responsible for numerous power outages across the island each year. « Most of the native forest birds have disappeared on Guam, » said Savidge. « There is a relatively small population of Micronesian starlings and one other cave-nesting bird that has survived in small numbers. The starling fulfills an important ecological function by distributing fruits and seeds that can help conserve the forests of Guam. »

Tom Seibert of the CSU, co-author and emeritus faculty, said the team tried to use a three-foot-long metal screen to keep the brown tree snakes from climbing on bird boxes. The same baffles were used to keep other snakes and raccoons out of nest boxes in bird watchers’ yards. However, this new study suggests that these might be a minor obstacle for brown tree snakes.

« We didn’t expect the brown tree snake to find a way around the baffle, » he said. « At first the baffle worked for the most part. We’d watched about four hours of video and then all of a sudden we saw this snake that looked like a lasso around the cylinder and wiggled its body upward. »

Seibert said that he and the CSU biologist Martin Kastner almost fell from their chairs when they observed this new form of locomotion for the first time.

« We saw this part of the video about 15 times, » said Seibert. « It was a shock. Nothing I’ve ever seen compares to it. »

To confirm the discovery, the team then turned to Bruce Jayne of the University of Cincinnati, an expert on various aspects of locomotion and muscle function, especially in snakes.

Brown tree snakes in particular are champion climbers, said Jayne, co-author and professor of life sciences.

« Brown tree snakes are particularly good at getting almost anywhere, » said Jayne. « It’s impressive. You can climb vertically with tiny protrusions on a surface and bridge enormous gaps in the tree canopy. You can push yourself up vertically by more than two-thirds of your body length. »

Jayne said snakes are typically steep To climb smooth branches or pipes in a movement known as concertina locomotion, in which the snake bends sideways to grip at least two regions.

In lasso locomotion, the snake uses the lasso Loop to form a single grasp area.

Seibert returned to Guam to record a high resolution video of this new climbing method so Jayne could better interpret the snakes’ movements.

« It wasn’t obvious like them Mounted a cylinder, « said Jayne. « The snake has these little bends within the loop of the lasso that allow it to move up by shifting the position of each bend. »

« Although they can climb in this mode, they are being pushed to their limits. The Snakes take a long break to rest, « he said.

The scientist, a self-described ecologist, said she’s been working with brown tree snakes for over 30 years.

 » Hopefully what we found will help are in the process of restoring starlings and other endangered birds, as we may now be able to design baffles that the snakes cannot defeat, « she said. « It’s still a pretty complex problem. »

« I’ve been working on snake locomotion for 40 years and this is where we found a whole new way of moving, » he said. « Chances are, there is more to discover. »

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