Snakes are generally good swimmers. They use lateral, wavey movements to move in water bodies like rivers and seas.
The lateral and wavelike movements create an “S” shape, with the waves starting from the snake’s head all the way to the tail. Furthermore, the tail provides further propulsion to push the snake forward.
Additionally, snakes make use of the surface tension of the water combined with undulating movement to float. When the snake undulates in the water, making an “S” shape with its body, they apply force behind the water. Read on to learn more about how snakes swim.
Can All Snakes Swim?
Most, if not all snakes, can swim. There are snakes that live exclusively in water, making swimming their primary mode of movement. Terrestrial snakes can swim from one point to another when it is necessary for them to do so. Generally, though, snakes are fond of water and will jump into it often just for a dip.
Even so, some snakes are better swimmers than others. For instance, water snakes will move better in water than terrestrial snakes because they are better adapted. The adaptations include the development of a flattened tail that functions like a paddle, which allows water snakes to stay underwater for close to an hour.
Some, like moccasins, are pretty buoyant and can swim with a part of their body out of the water. Others prefer to keep their heads and bodies inside the water during a swim.
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Snakes’ Methods of Swimming
There are several methods that snakes use to move across the water. Different species use different swimming methods to propel themselves while swimming.
Essentially, snakes swim in four ways. These include the concertina method, the rectilinear method, the sidewinding method, and the serpentine method, which will be discussed in more detail below. Snakes’ bodies are lined with muscles underneath their scales and use the combination of scales and muscles to move across the water.
1. The Concertina Method
Snakes mostly use this method when swimming in confined places. The concertina method involves a snake stabilizing its rear end by anchoring it to the ground or an object. The snake then pushes the rest of its body forward. It then drops its head and hangs on the ground with the chin while pushing the rest of its body forward.
2. The Rectilinear Method
Rectilinear refers to something that is related to a straight line. Thus, snakes that use this swimming method move in a straight path. The snake propels itself using the scales on its underside by grasping the ground with them. Relatively, this swimming method is slow.
3. The Side Winding Method
Snakes use this method when their scales cannot grasp the surface they are on. This surface could be sandy or muddy, making it difficult for the scales to form a strong grip. Therefore, a snake will propel itself by jerking its neck forward as it twists its body in the same movement.
4. The Serpentine Method
The serpentine method is basically how a snake moves even on solid ground. It is that slithering movement that we all know. A snake will push itself from a stationary position in the water and propel itself using this wavelike motion. It uses its tummy scales to maintain momentum.
Can A Snake Drown?
Snakes breathe using lungs and so require an adequate amount of oxygen to survive. That said, a snake can drown if it stays underwater for too long. This includes sea snakes who can swim underwater for up to an hour- they have to come up to the surface for a gulp of oxygen.
Even so, sea snakes are known to hold their breath for a long time. This is because they can absorb up to 33% of the oxygen they need through their skin. They also release up to 90% of Carbon (IV) Oxide using their skins while under the water.
Snakes will emerge on the water surface every 30 minutes, on average, to breathe. Some terrestrial snakes can only stay for a short time underwater when they dive for food. They mostly get there to regulate body temperatures or to navigate through the water.
Why Do Snakes Swim?
For snakes that live entirely in water, swimming is their primary form of movement. They have to move on from one point to another to hunt, mate, or even escape from predators.
Some snakes that live on land feed on aquatic animals such as fish and young amphibians. Therefore, these will hang around water bodies waiting around for food to come along. At times, the snakes will even dive into the water to hunt for the food themselves.
Other times, snakes get into the water to regulate their body temperature. See, snakes are ectothermic animals, meaning that their body temperature fluctuates as per their surroundings. When it is too hot, the snake’s body will also become hot, altering its bodily functions. In this case, the snake will need a way to cool off, and they do this by taking a dip in the ocean, lake, or river.
Additionally, soaking in water helps with a snake’s shedding cycle as it loosens the skin. This way, the shedding process is fast and easy.
Can You Differentiate Between Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes By How They Swim?
There is no concrete scientific proof that shows that venomous and non-venomous snakes have distinct ways of swimming. While it is said that venomous snakes swim above the water and non-venomous snakes swim under the water’s surface, it is not entirely correct. Therefore, you cannot use this method to differentiate between venomous and non-venomous snakes is not a full proof strategy.
Harry Greene, who studied snakes throughout his career, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, says that common venomous snakes in eastern states – copperheads, cottonmouths, and larger rattlesnakes – swim with the whole of their body on the surface of the water. Non-venomous snakes like garters, ribbon snakes, and other water snakes keep their head on the surface when swimming.
However, it is also true that most snakes swim underwater when escaping a predator or when hunting for food. Others are good swimmers and can float on the water’s surface. All in all, how a snake swims is not a definitive test for how venomous it is.
Snakes love water, and most are good swimmers. Sea snakes live entirely in water and are more adapted to swimming than terrestrial snakes. Generally, snakes use their belly scales and muscles to move in water in a wavelike motion. Snakes use four primary methods to propel themselves in the water: the concertina method, rectilinear method, side winding method, and the serpentine method.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.