Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Snake Locomotion
Nature Bulletin No. 90   November 2, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation

Curled up on a fallen leaf, we found a tiny snake basking in the autumn sunshine. His back was dull brownish-gray but his belly was bright red, and he was only 10 inches long. It was the Red-bellied Snake, the smallest species that inhabits the Chicago region, so little and so secretive it is rarely seen. Only the Worm Snakes found in central and southern Illinois are smaller. The red-bellied snake is usually less than 12 inches in length, living on earthworms, slugs and possibly insects. When born they measure less than 3 inches and can coil up on a dime with room to spare.

We finally succeeded in putting this one into a small match box but it was a job. His hard smooth scales made him slippery as an eel. We took him to Trailside Museum and dumped him out on the glass top of a showcase where he wriggled and skidded in vain attempts to escape.

Snakes require a surface with obstructions and some roughness in order to travel. Try putting a snake on loose sand and watch it crawl. Every part of its belly touches the ground and it flows along in a series of S- curves. On the back of each curve you will notice the sand has been pushed up. The body pivots and pushes sidewise against these piles and is propelled forward. They swim in water with the same motion.

Snakes have a backbone with a great many vertebrae, some having about 300 whereas a man has only 33 or 34. To each vertebra is attached a pair of ribs. On the belly, from neck to tail, are as many broad overlapping plates as there are vertebrae, each attached to the ends of a pair of ribs and controlled by a system of muscles. Some thick-bodied snakes, such as rattlesnakes and the cottonmouth moccasin, can crawl slowly in a straight line along the ground, or even up a tree, by inching a few belly plates forward, then a few more, synchronized so that there appears to be wave after wave traveling from neck to tail. But for speedy travel they use the sinuous movement. When hunting, they glide with the head and a third of the body erect.

The maximum rate of travel know, by any kind of snake, is 3 miles per hour.

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