Rattlesnake strike behavior: kinematics

J Exp Biol. 1998 Mar;201 (Pt 6):837-50. doi: 10.1242/jeb.201.6.837.


The predatory behavior of rattlesnakes includes many distinctive preparatory phases leading to an extremely rapid strike, during which venom is injected. The rodent prey is then rapidly released, removing the snake's head from retaliation by the prey. The quick action of the venom makes possible the recovery of the dispatched prey during the ensuing poststrike period. The strike is usually completed in less than 0.5 s, placing a premium on an accurate strike that produces no significant errors in fang placement that could result in poor envenomation and subsequent loss of the prey. To clarify the basis for effective strike performance, we examined the basic kinematics of the rapid strike using high-speed film analysis. We scored numerous strike variables. Four major results were obtained. (1) Neurosensory control of the strike is based primarily upon sensory inputs via the eyes and facial pits to launch the strike, and upon tactile stimuli after contact. Correction for errors in targeting occurs not by a change in strike trajectory, but by fang repositioning after the jaws have made contact with the prey. (2) The rattlesnake strike is based upon great versatility and variation in recruitment of body segments and body postures. (3) Forces generated during acceleration of the head are transferred to posterior body sections to decelerate the head before contact with the prey, thereby reducing impact forces upon the snake's jaws. (4) Body acceleration is based on two patterns of body displacement, one in which acute sections of the body open like a gate, the other in which body segments flow around postural curves similar to movements seen during locomotion. There is one major implication of these results: recruitment of body segments, launch postures and kinematic features of the strike may be quite varied from strike to strike, but the overall predatory success of each strike by a rattlesnake is very consistent. <P>