How a heavy-bodied snake strikes quickly: high-power axial musculature in the puff adder (Bitis arietans)

J Exp Zool A Ecol Genet Physiol. 2010 Feb 1;313(2):114-21. doi: 10.1002/jez.579.


Despite being large, heavy-bodied snakes, puff adders (Bitis arietans) are capable of achieving strike velocities and accelerations similar to, or greater than, those of much smaller snakes (means of 2.6 and 72 m/sec(2), respectively). The mechanistic basis of the strike was examined using high-speed digital videography, coupled with electromyographic (EMG) analysis, of the two main extensors of the vertebral column, the semispinalis and longissimus. Although the strike involves the rapid extension of preformed body curves, the extensor muscles were not electrically active during body extension. The vertebral extensor muscles exhibited bursts of electrical activity before the onset of movement-and quantified features of these EMG signals were significantly related to kinematic aspects of the strike (e.g., acceleration)-however, this electrical activity terminated shortly (approximately 50 msec) before the onset of movement. It is hypothesized that the prestrike activity of the extensor muscles functions to place the (extensive) musculo-tendon complex of the snake's epaxial muscles under tension, and that the displacement of the body during the strike is due to the elastic recoil of this musculo-tendon complex. Incorporation of this type of elastic recoil would increase the power output of the vertebral extensors. Power amplification of the vertebral extensors may be an evolutionary necessity if a large, heavy-bodied snake, like B. arietans, is going to achieve rapid acceleration during the strike.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena / physiology
  • Electromyography
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / anatomy & histology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Video Recording
  • Viperidae / anatomy & histology
  • Viperidae / physiology*