Maybe it’s time to update our animal trivia. Malaysian scientists say they are the first to document a species of snake that intentionally cartwheels. The behavior appears to be an evasive maneuver used against potential predators and may be common in other similar species.
The acrobat reptile in question is known as dwarf reed snake, Or Pseudorabdion longiceps. It is a small, non-venomous, black to reddish snake, found widely in parts of Southeast Asia. Although widespread, it is rarely seen by humans, thanks to its semi-burrowing, nocturnal lifestyle; during the day, it usually hides under rocks or dead leaves.
A few years ago, however, study author Evan Seng Huat Quah spotted a dwarf reed snake busily tossing through the air and rolling like a spool — a cartwheel, in other words. Quah, a herpetologist at the University of Malaysia in Sabah, was not the first person to report seeing a freewheeling snake. Unfortunately, like others before him, he had no way of recording the behavior at the time, meaning the sighting was purely anecdotal. But luck would eventually shine on him and his colleagues in August 2019, when they were on an unrelated research trip to the mountains of Kedah, Malaysia.
“We were thrilled when we came across the specimen we recorded in this case, when we were conducting herpetological surveys for other species at the site,” Quah told Gizmodo in an email. “This time we had our camera gear in hand and were able to take the images used in this post.”
The snake was surprised by the scientists and tried to quickly get away from them on a hilly road. But then they were able to capture the animal and place it on a flat surface, where it again cartwheeled several times in full view of their cameras. The team published their findings Wednesday in the journal Biotropica. They also cite a YouTube video of another dwarf reed snake doing cartwheels that was downloaded Last year.
Despite how fun it is for kids in gym class, rolling as a form of movement has rarely been seen in other land animals. No rolling animals appear to use it as their primary means of locomotion, the scientists note, and these animals typically exhibit passive rolling, where they use external forces, such as wind or gravity, to lift heavy loads. Thus, the dwarf reed snake’s willingness to lunge is unusual, even among rollers.
Snakes likely only cartwheel to escape or confuse potential predators, Quah explained, because they glide like any other snake when traveling through leaf litter or in search of food. But they may not be the only reptiles doing cartwheels around town; there have been other anecdotal sightings of different snake species, including that of a closely related member of the same genus.
“We believe this behavior has long gone unnoticed due to the secretive nature of these snakes. These snakes are small and semi-burrowing, which means that they usually hide in leaf litter or burrow in debris. It helps them stay undetected,” Quah said.
Quah then hopes to collaborate with scientists who study the mechanics of animal movement to better understand the gymnastics of these snakes.