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'It's Bizarre': Scientists Discover A New Way Snakes Can Climb

Courtesy Bruce Jayne
UC Biologist Bruce Jayne with a brown tree snake.

Until now it was thought there were four methods snakes use to climb things. A University of Cincinnati professor is part of a team that recently discovered a fifth.

Biologist Bruce Jayne and researchers at Colorado State University call the previously unknown method "lasso locomotion" because of the lasso-like way brown tree snakes can wrap their bodies around objects like poles and trees to climb.

"It is a really bizarre way of moving that allows snakes to climb really big cylindrical surfaces," Jayne says with a slight laugh. The find is particularly exciting since Jayne says these snakes have been widely studied for years and yet this new way of climbing hadn't been observed until now.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Why This Is Important

The climbing behavior was observed in brown tree snakes in Guam. This species of snake is native to Australia and Indonesia, and is considered a highly invasive species in Guam. It's believed to have been introduced to the island in the late 1940s or early 1950s, likely on shipping vessels traveling around at the end of or just after World War II, Jayne says.

With no natural predators, the brown tree snake population quickly grew and began having a catastrophic impact on the native wildlife. The snake has decimated bird populations, according to CSU researchers, and there are only two native forest species remaining on Guam.

"They have nearly wiped out all of the native bird species in Guam as well as a number of other (animals) - they eat almost any small vertebrate that they can fit into their mouths," Jayne explains. "They're a really voracious predator."

It's similar to the Burmese python situation in the Florida Everglades.

"I would argue in some ways the brown tree snake in Guam is probably worse because of the electrical outages there," Jayne clarifies.

That's right, not only have the brown tree snakes eaten all the birds, but when they climb trees and power poles to get to nesting boxes meant to help bird populations, they frequently damage power lines and are responsible for scores of power outages on Guam each year.

Now that scientists know how the snakes are getting up to all this mischief, the information can be used to find ways to "snakeproof" against them.

How Lasso Locomotion Works

Lasso locomotion works by a snake wrapping the lower portion of its body around the object, using its prehensile tail to make a lasso-like shape secured with its prehensile tail. Once it has a tight grip, it uses its muscles to slowly shimmy or inch its body upward. Jayne says it's a slow, physically taxing process and snakes the researchers studied took frequent breaks.

Watch how it works in this video:

You Knew It Was Coming: Snakes On Planes (And Ships)

"These snakes are just really good at getting almost any place," says Jayne. Preventing them is important for keeping them from spreading to other Pacific islands and the United States.

"They have a phenomenal ability to move around and that can allow them to do things such as climb up the ropes when ships are in dock and potentially get on a ship. They've commonly been known to stowaway in aircraft," he says.

While the snakes have been documented as making it as far as Hawaii, Jayne says they haven't become established there. It is a concern though, especially since they're nocturnal and excellent hiders.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.