A terrestrial animal with no arms and no legs could have difficulty moving, yet snakes are the very opposite of lumbering, awkward creatures. Their agile, undulating movements propel them over branches, through brush, and even up into trees. For many species of snake, it is their scales that aid them in that locomotion and also protect their body from harm.
“A suit of armor might be a useful analogy,” said Professor Bruce C. Jayne, who studies the locomotion and muscle function of snakes at the University of Cincinnati. “The rigid plates of armor (scales) offer great protection, but if the suit of armor were only a single rigid piece, movement would be impossible. However, as the individual plates of armor become smaller and if they are joined by a flexible material (hinge region) in between the individual plates, then mobility is enhanced with little compromise in protection as long as the plates cover up the underlying connective material.”
What happens then when a snake is born without its scales? While a a plethora of studies investigate the benefits of snake scales—citing protection, movement, water retention, and camouflage as possibilities—scaleless snakes seem to be a fairly unexplored topic.
“I am not aware of anybody who has directly tested whether the crawling speeds of scaleless snakes is inferior to that of scaled snakes within the same species,” said Professor Jayne, “but such an experiment would be very useful for resolving some of the potential costs of a snake lacking scales."
As Jayne states, simply because a scaleless snake does well in captivity, does not mean lacking scales is of no consequence to the animal in its natural environment.