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How Snakes Slither Up Trees

snake in tree
Ever wonder how snakes find themselves in trees? Well, snakes use their scales and body muscles to climb narrow crevices on tree bark, new research finds. (Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi )

Slithering climbers

Corn snake on tree trunk

(Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi)

Without legs, snakes must get creative to slither up trees, and new research suggests they use the scales covering their bodies to make such climbs. Their scales and body muscles work together to push against the bark on the tree as they inch upward, the researchers said.

Tree snake

Corn snake in tree

(Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi )

They discovered the scale-y skill by watching corn snakes climb channels inclined at up to 60 degrees from horizontal.

Digging the crevices

Corn snake

(Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi)

The researchers saw that the snakes used their body muscles to push on the bark-covered walls with nine times their body weight.

Scale trick

Corn Snake

(Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi)

These corn snakes are able to angle their scales outward to make them better at catching and digging in to the bark's rough surface. This scale angling created twice as much friction against the bark (compared with the scales remaining flat), pushing the snakes up and letting the snakes sit in trees for an extended amount of time.

Rubbing on bark

Snake snakes on tree

(Image credit: Tim Nowak and Hamidreza Marvi )

The surface the snake is pushing on needs to be rough for their scales to get a good grip.

Robo snakes

corn snake

(Image credit: G. Pryor and David Hu )

The researchers hope to use these insights to design a slithering search-and-rescue robot, which could be used in complex terrain like navigating through rubble.

Jennifer Welsh
Jennifer Welsh graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz's Science Communication graduate program after working at a start up biotech company for three years after getting her Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame. She has worked at WiredScience, The Scientist and Discover Magazine before joining the Live Science team.