Biologists discover bizarre ‘lasso’ snake locomotion

University of Cincinnati biologist Bruce Jayne has spent his career studying the superpowers of snakes, which can move easily through water, in burrows, over sand and in the treetops.

Now add one more.

Jayne and his collaborators from Colorado State University discovered a new mode of snake locomotion that allows nimble brown tree snakes to climb wide cylinders by wrapping their bodies around them. It’s unlike any other known snake behavior.

This lasso locomotion, named because of a lasso-like body posture, may contribute to the success and impact of this highly invasive species. It allows these animals to reach prey that might be otherwise unobtainable and may also explain how this species could climb power poles, leading to electrical outages.

Researchers said they hope the findings will help protect endangered birds from the snakes by leading to more effective barriers to nest boxes.

The study was published Jan. 11 in the journal Current Biology.

For the past century, snake locomotion traditionally has been categorized into four modes: rectilinear, lateral undulation, sidewinding and concertina. Jayne has helped describe these modes in detail in his biology lab in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

This new discovery of a fifth mode was the unexpected result of a project led by CSU emeritus professor Julie Savidge aimed at protecting the nests of Micronesia starlings, one of only two native forest species still remaining on Guam.

“We didn’t expect that the brown tree snake would be able to find a way around the baffle,” he said. “Initially, the baffle did work, for the most part. We had watched about four hours of video and then all of a sudden, we saw this snake form what looked like a lasso around the cylinder and wiggle its body up.”

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

“We watched that part of the video about 15 times,” Seibert said. “It was a shocker. Nothing I’d ever seen compares to it.”

To confirm the discovery, the team subsequently reached out to UC’s Jayne, an expert on different aspects of locomotion and muscle function, especially in snakes. Brown tree snakes are champion climbers, said Jayne, a study co-author.

“Brown tree snakes are especially good at getting almost anywhere,” Jayne said. “It’s impressive. They can climb vertically using even the tiniest projections on a surface, and they can bridge enormous gaps in the tree canopy. They can push themselves up vertically more than two-thirds of their body length.”

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

But with lasso locomotion, the snake uses the loop of the lasso to form a single gripping region.

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

“It wasn’t obvious how they were able to climb a cylinder,” Jayne said. “The snake has these little bends within the loop of the lasso that allow it to advance upwards by shifting the location of each bend.”

Lasso locomotion is more physically demanding than other climbing methods, Jayne said.

“Even though they can climb using this mode, it is pushing them to the limits. The snakes pause for prolonged periods to rest,” he said.

Savidge said the discovery of a new mode of snake locomotion is exciting. A self-described ecologist, the scientist said she has worked with brown tree snakes for more than 30 years.

“Hopefully what we found will help to restore starlings and other endangered birds, since we can now potentially design baffles that the snakes can’t defeat,” she said. “It’s still a pretty complex problem.”

Jayne said what the team discovered shows how amazing brown tree snakes are.

“I’ve been working on snake locomotion for 40 years and here, we’ve found a completely new way of moving,” he said. “Odds are, there is more out there to discover.”

Featured image at top: Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and Colorado State University described a new type of snake locomotion by nimble brown tree snakes. Photo/Bruce Jayne

Bruce Jayne holds a brown tree snake using a snake hook.

UC biology professor Bruce Jayne holds a brown tree snake in his lab. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

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