Cartwheeling snakes are the subject of a new paper that explores if this hectic movement may actually be a defense mechanism to ward off predators. The gymnastic reptile in question is the dwarf reed snake, Pseudorabdion longiceps, that’s been observed going tail-over-tongue to cartwheel away by repeatedly launching its coiled body into the air.
Snakes are known to get creative when it comes to defending themselves, having been observed changing color, producing smells, feigning death, and trying to make themselves look bigger. Now, it seems they may also be getting creative with the way in which they flee possible predators, as the chaotic coiling of the dwarf reed snakes has led scientists to conclude that the strange cartwheeling acts like a defense mechanism.
“The cartwheels performed by these snakes are very frantic,” explained corresponding author Evan Seng Huat Quah, PhD, of the Universiti Malaysia Sabah, to IFLScience. “As these are small snakes that are about 15 centimeters [6 inches] in length, they look like a coiled piece of wire or rubber band rolling across the ground. The speed, as well as the frantic motion, is one of the reasons, we believe this behaviour is used to disorient predators.”
It's a unique approach to snake movement, but one that Quah believes could be found in other snakes.
“We believe that there are other reptile species that may employ the same defense mechanism,” he explained. “Cartwheeling may be more widespread than currently known in snakes, especially reed snakes of the family Calamariinae. There are annecdoctal reports of other species performing this behaviour including another member of the same genus, Pseudorabdion albonuchalis.”
Most people would probably agree that seeing a snake coming cartwheeling toward you would be enough to make you turn and run (before stopping to ponder, can you cartwheel without legs?). So, it may be an effective defense mechanism, but one that is understandably only used in dire circumstances owing to the fact it must be completely exhausting.
“This behaviour is surprising as it is not a typical form of movement that we associate with snakes that are rectilinear, lateral undulation, sidewinding, and concertina movements,” continued Quah. “Cartwheeling is also probably very metabolically taxing for the snake as they cannot sustain this behaviour repeatedly or over long distances. It is a defense mechanism employed only under extreme duress.”
The research team hopes next to explore how widespread cartwheeling is among snakes, including following up on a tip that a few species within the same Calamariinae family have been observed coiling in a similarly frantic fashion. Quah also hopes to team up with biomechanics researchers to better understand the kinetics behind cartwheeling snakes, something we doubt anyone had on their 2023 bingo card.
The Natural History Field Note is published in Biotropica.