TitleThe effects of substrate and vertebral number on locomotion in the garter snake Thamnophis elegans
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsKelley, KC, Arnold, SJ, Glatstone, J
JournalFunctional Ecology
Keywordscrawling speed ecomorphology lateral bending population variation nerodia-fasciata performance capacity behavioral variation natural-populations muscular mechanisms elaphe-obsoleta body-size limbless morphology kinematics

1. Locomotor performance of limbless vertebrates depends on the substrate through which individuals move and may result in selection on vertebral number in different habitats. To evaluate the effect of push-point density on snake locomotion, the density of vegetation and other potential push-points was quantified at two sites in California (coastal and inland), where conspecific snakes differed greatly in vertebral number (230 and 256 average total vertebrae, respectively; Arnold 1988). The coastal site had significantly higher push-point densities than the inland site. 2. Five experimental push-point densities that fell within the natural range of push-point densities were employed in laboratory trials of juvenile snake locomotion. Density of push-points significantly affected both crawling speed and head-to-tail distance (HTD), an indirect measure of lateral bending. The fastest speed was achieved at an intermediate push-point density. The shortest HTD occurred when snakes moved through the lowest push-point density. 3. Sex, total number of vertebrae and total length significantly affected HTD, regardless of push-point density. Snakes with relatively more vertebrae had a shorter HTD, suggesting they were able to achieve greater lateral bending than snakes with fewer vertebrae. Coastal and inland populations did not differ in HTD during locomotion. 4. Numbers of body and tail vertebrae significantly influenced speed at different push-point densities. In general, snakes with more: body vertebrae were slower than those with fewer, while snakes with more tail vertebrae were faster than those with fewer. Snakes of greater total length were faster at all densities. Coastal snakes crawled faster than inland snakes at all push-point densities.