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The Slithering of Snakes

Bruce Jayne, biological sciences, was recently awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to study the locomotion of snakes.

Date: 4/27/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Courtesy of Bruce Jayne
Biological sciences professor Bruce Jayne conducts much of his research on different aspects of locomotion in snakes, fishes and lizards. He has just received a $167,525 grant from the National Science Foundation for his proposal, “Arboreal snake locomotion: A model system for studying effects of musculoskeletal design and environmental variation on three-dimensional movements.”

Bruce Jayne.
Bruce Jayne holds up a large brown tree snake while he conducts research in Guam.

You just received a National Science Foundation grant to look at snake locomotion. Tell us what got you interested in the topic.

Unlike the terrestrial and aquatic locomotion of most animals, arboreal locomotion has barely been studied despite the huge diversity of animals that live in trees. The mechanical and sensory challenges of moving on discontinuous and narrow surfaces such as tree branches are also well-suited to testing the limits of what animals with different body plans are able to do. So, to me this seemed a logical gap in our current understanding that was worth pursuing.
What is the overall goal of your research?

I am trying to determine how structural variation in the environment interacts with the behavior, anatomy and physiological capacity of animals to influence where they go and how they move.
How do snakes better demonstrate musculoskeletal design than other species?

Compared to other animals, snakes have radical variation in the portions of tendon relative to the contractile tissue within their muscles. Thus, comparing several snake species allows me to take advantage of a natural “experiment” in some parameters of muscle design that would be difficult to create artificially.
Bruce Jayne.

This interdisciplinary grant includes collaboration with other biologists and even cognitive scientists, such as Psychology Professor Michael Riley. How crucial is it to have these collaborations in studying the movement of snakes?

This collaboration is extremely important. My primary expertise is in muscle function and biomechanics. However, animals can have the physiological capacity to move through a particular environment, and yet if they do not perceive that they are able to do so, these aspects of sensory and cognitive function may limit what the animal does. These latter areas are the expertise of my collaborator, Mike Riley.   
What are the broader implications that can come from your research?

This work will provide fundamental insight into how anatomical and environmental variation affect muscle function and the ability to move. Snakes move in many places that are impassable for animals with limbs and vehicles with wheels, hence studying them can provide inspiration for designing snake-like robots to traverse some of these challenging environments. I will also be working with one invasive species, the brown tree snake, which has had devastating effects on the ecology and economy of Guam. I hope to determine what sort of surfaces are impassable for this snake, which should facilitate designing barriers that reduce the dispersal of this species as well as the number of electrical power outages it causes.

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