Georgia Institute of Technology Georgia Institute of Technology

Research Horizons

Georgia Tech's Research Horizons Magazine
Menu

Swimming Through Sand

photo - small snake
Shovel nosed snake photo: Jason Maderer

For swimming through sand, a slick and slender snake can perform better than a short and stubby lizard.

That’s one conclusion from a study of movement patterns in the shovel- nosed snake, a native of the Mojave Desert of the southwest United States. The research shows how the snake uses its slender shape to move smoothly through the sand, and how its slippery skin reduces friction. Both factors provide locomotive advantages over another sand-swimmer: the sandfish lizard native to the Sahara Desert of northern Africa.

The study provides information that could help explain how evolutionary pressures have affected body shape among sand-dwelling animals. And the work could also be useful in designing search-and-rescue robots able to move through sand and other granular materials with a minimal expenditure of energy.

Using X-ray technology to watch each creature as it moved through a bed of sand, researchers studied the waves propagating down the bodies of both the snakes and sandfish lizards. Granular resistive force theory, which considers the thrust provided by the body waves and the drag on the animals’ bodies, helped model the locomotion and compare the energy effciency of the limbless snake against that of the four-legged lizard, which doesn’t use its legs to swim through the sand.

“We were curious about how this snake moved, and once we observed its movement, how it moved so well in the sand,” said Dan Goldman, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Physics. “Our model reveals how both the snake and the sandfish move as fast as their body shapes permit while using the least amount of energy.”

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office, the research was reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.—JOHN TOON

ipad cover issue 3 2015

Keep in touch with the latest Georgia Tech research news through our print magazine, monthly e-newsletter, and Twitter feed.
SUBSCRIBE NOW >

Georgia Tech is home to more than 2,500 faculty members who conduct scientific and engineering research in hundreds of different research areas.

Related Stories

Read More
Read More
Read More

Get the Latest Research News in Your Inbox

Sign up for the Research Horizons Monthly Newsletter

Media Contacts

John Toon

John Toon

Director of Research News
Phone: 404.894.6986
photo - Ben Brumfield

Ben Brumfield

Senior Science Writer
Phone: 404.385.1933
Josh Brown

Josh Brown

Senior Science Writer
Phone: 404-385-0500

Subscribe & Connect

Follow Us on Twitter:

@gtresearchnews

RSS Feeds

Subscribe to our RSS Feeds with your favorite reader.

Email Newsletter

Sign up to receive our monthly email newsletter.

Research Horizons Magazine

Sign up for a free subscription to Research Horizons magazine.