It might be time to update our animal-related trivia. Scientists in Malaysia say they’re 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 among other, similar species.
The acrobatic reptile in question is known as the dwarf reed snake, or Pseudorabdion longiceps. It’s a small, nonvenomous, black to reddish snake found widely through parts of Southeast Asia. Though widespread, it’s rarely seen by humans, thanks to its semi-burrowing and nocturnal lifestyle; during the day, it’s usually hiding under rocks or leaf litter.
A few years ago, though, study author Evan Seng Huat Quah spotted a dwarf reed snake actively launching itself into the air and rolling away in a coil-like fashion—a cartwheel, in other words. Quah, a herpetologist at the University of Malaysia of Sabah, wasn’t the first person to ever report seeing a cartwheeling snake. Unfortunately, like others before him, he didn’t have any way to record the behavior at the time, meaning the sighting was purely anecdotal. But luck would eventually shine upon him and his colleagues in August 2019, while 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 instance, 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 publication.”
The snake was startled by the scientists and tried to quickly cartwheel away from them down a hilly road. But they were then 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 on Wednesday in the journal Biotropica. They also cite a YouTube video of another dwarf reed snake cartwheeling that was uploaded last year.
Despite how fun it is for kids in gym class, rolling as a form of movement has rarely been seen among other land-dwelling animals. No animal that does roll seems to use it as a primary means of locomotion, the scientists note, and these animals usually deploy passive rolling, where they use external forces, like the wind or gravity, to do the heavy lifting. So the dwarf reed snake’s willingness to fling itself is unusual even among rollers.
The snakes likely only cartwheel to escape or confuse potential predators, Quah explained, since they slither just like any other snake when traveling through leaf litter or foraging for food. But they might not be the only cartwheeling reptile in town; there have been other anecdotal sightings of different snake species, including that of a closely related member belonging to the same genus.
“We believe that this behavior has long gone unnoticed due to the secretive nature of these snakes. These snakes are small in size and semi-fossorial, meaning they usually hide in the leaf litter or burrow into debris. This helps them remain undetected,” Quah said.
Quah next hopes to collaborate with scientists who study the mechanics of animal motion to better understand the gymnastics of these snakes.