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Table of Contents
Snakes are found all over the world. Apart from the North and South Poles, they’re literally found on every continent across the face of the globe. However, with notoriety comes slander and misconceptions. For instance, most people still believe that all snakes are harmful (read: venomous or, even more inaccurately, poisonous). Yet, only about 20% of all the known snake species in the world are actually venomous!
Similarly, most people in the world also believe or hold the irrational fear that snakes can scale down or up walls. This fear is especially exaggerated in tropical or subtropical countries like India which have a wide variety of snakes including cobras, vipers, and kraits.
While snakes are good climbers, it is a bit of a stretch to say that all snakes can climb walls. To explain this better, we need to explore the morphology of a snake’s body a bit more. Similar to all reptiles in the world, snakes are covered by scales. While other reptiles, like turtles or crocodiles, have rougher scales, snakes have special and elongated scales. These are made up of keratin , the stuff that makes up our hair and nails. Similar to our nails, the scales of a snake are extremely smooth.
Snakes are also one of the few land animals alive today that have no limbs (others include the legless lizard, amphisbaenians , and caecilians ). Considering both these factors, that snakes have smooth scales and no legs, it’s quite obvious to conclude that snakes aren’t best suited to a climbing mode of locomotion . They’re pretty good at what they do: slithering. They’re incredibly good at dragging their body along horizontal surfaces and slithering away.
Does this mean snakes can’t climb at all?
Not exactly. When we talk about climbing, we talk about using our forelimbs and hind limbs to alternatively push and pull ourselves up a vertical surface. So, when considering animals like snakes that have no limbs, how can we determine what constitutes climbing?
Turns out, we can actually say that snakes can’t climb. Rather, snakes have figured out a pretty nifty way to slither up vertical surfaces. To understand how snakes slither up surfaces, we first need to understand how they slither on the ground as well. They have extremely muscular bodies. They contort their bodies by contracting and relaxing different groups of muscles all along their body to move around. Primarily, the locomotive mechanisms used by snakes can be grouped into four types: lateral undulation or serpentine locomotion, concertina or “accordion” locomotion, side winding or crotaline locomotion, and finally, rectilinear locomotion.
Most snakes generally get around by serpentine locomotion. In fact, it’s pretty easy to notice when snakes use this particular type of locomotion, as their bodies contort into the classical “S” shape that we’re all familiar with.
(For reference, think of the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There is a scene where Harry stares down a snake after a duel with Draco, and in that scene, the snake is moving toward Harry using lateral undulation.)
Lateral undulation is great for horizontal surfaces, like the floor of grasslands or forests. However, if the snake’s trying to get to a higher point or wants to eat a particularly tasty rodent in a tree, it can’t “serpentine” its way up a tree. So, when it comes to vertical surfaces, snakes make use of concertina or “accordion” locomotion.
Accordion locomotion is a pretty unique method of locomotion. In this type of movement, snakes don’t use just their muscles. They also grip surfaces, such as tree bark, using the scales on their belly. The snake stretches its body upward, grips the surface, and then pulls itself up. It then repeats the same process to climb further. The movement is also pretty aptly named, as the snake does end up contorting its body into a series of accordion-like folds. This type of locomotion is extremely effective on rough or uneven surfaces. This is because the snake can use its scales to grip and push against the surface.
(Note: It’s important to note that not all snakes use accordion locomotion to climb, and some species may use other methods, such as lateral undulation or side winding.)
Now that we know how snakes move across both horizontal and vertical surfaces, we can finally answer the burning question on all our minds: can snakes slither up and down walls?
Technically, yes. Snakes can slither up and down walls, but only a few kinds of walls. Compare a wall to the natural surfaces, like trees and vines, that a snake would slither up and down in its natural habitat, say, a forest.
Trees and vines aren’t entirely smooth surfaces. They’ve got grooves and ridges along which the snake can anchor itself. Similarly, if the wall in question is a brick-layered wall, it would have grooves built into it. This makes it easy for a snake to slither along the uneven surface.
On the other hand, a smooth surface, vertical or horizontal, will always trouble a snake. This is because snakes need friction . For example, think of frictionless surfaces, like ice!
Ice is the primary reason why snakes can’t live in Antarctica. The surface of ice is super polished. It’s slippery as well. Snakes have nothing to grip or anchor themselves against when moving on ice.
So, if you’ve got glass panes or marble lining your walls, or even if your wall is just a plain surface of spackled cement, you can relax. There’s no way a snake’s getting up and down that surface.
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8
Locomotion: The ability to get from point A to point B.
Serpentine: describes something that is curvy, winding, or snake-like in shape or movement.
Friction: A force that opposes motion between two surfaces.
Keratin: A protein that makes up our hair and nails, and even the horns of rhinos!
Amphisbaenians: A group of burrowing lizard species, most of which are legless, also known as “worm lizards”
Caecilians: A group of legless, burrowing amphibian species
Morphology: The study of the structure and form of all living organisms, including their physical characteristics.
Maxwell, C. (2023, March 21). Yes, Snakes Can Climb Walls! These 4 Types Are the Best Climbers. AZ Animals. https://a-z-animals.com/blog/yes-snakes-can-climb-walls-these-types-are-the-best-climbers/#:~:text=Snakes%20can’t%20climb%20a,as%20they%20go%20up%20them.
Wildlife Informer. (2023, January 26). Can Snakes Climb Walls? https://wildlifeinformer.com/can-snakes-climb-walls/
The Wire. How do Snakes Climb Without Limbs? (n.d.)