Hidden snake's 'startling' behaviour rewrites textbooks

Snakes have been observed using cartwheels to confuse and startle predators.

Snakes are using cartwheels and jumps to “startle” and “confuse” predators, new photographs and video reveals.

While the wheel is essential to human transportation, rolling is extremely rare in nature and mostly confined to insects and spiders. Reports of this behaviour in the Southeast Asian dwarf reed snake remained anecdotal until an international team published their findings in the journal Biotropica in April.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia from Malaysia, lead researcher Dr Evan Quah revealed he had witnessed a cartwheeling snake before, but frustratingly he didn’t have a camera with him. Then in 2019, the Universiti Malaysia Sabah herpetologist and his team were conducting a snake survey, when he once again witnessed the strange occurrence. “This time we had our camera gear with us, and we were able to record the behaviour in detail for the very first time,” he said.

A red circle around where the snake is hidden in the dirt. A man can be seen squatting and filming with his phone and holding a stick.
Video shared to YouTube shows a man toying with the snake before it began cartwheeling. Source: ARasky Outdoors

The team reported the snake cartwheeled “down an incline”, using the terrain to “gain speed and rapidly cover more ground”. The snake was then placed on a flat area beside a road and it continued to repeat the behaviour.

"When approached, the snake was startled and throwing the coils of its body into a loop and began rolling to try and escape. The snake cartwheeled approximately 1.5 m in less than (five seconds) down the road," they reported.

How common is rolling?

  • Ants, desert spiders, pill millipedes, woodlice, salamanders, toads, and pangolins all roll.

  • Rolling is extremely rare, with two types observed — passive and active.

  • By rolling, it's believed snakes leave only leave a patchy scent trail for predators to follow.

  • It's unknown why rolling is so rare in nature, but the movement is known to use a lot of energy.

Discovery rewrites rule book on snake behaviour

Left - three images of the rolling snake on grass. Right - a picture of a dwarf reed snake.
The dwarf reed snake was photographed cartwheeling by the Malaysian team. Source: Biotropica/Dr Evan Quah

Because other snakes are known to avoid predators by striking with enough force to lift their bodies from the ground, reports that individuals could also cartwheel hadn’t seemed “completely out of the realm of possibility” to Dr Quah before he witnessed the behaviour himself.

Having now proven for the first time that snakes can cartwheel, the discovery officially rewrites the rule book on our understanding of snakes. “I’ve had colleagues from other parts of the world emailing me saying after this they will have to update their textbooks,” Dr Quah said.

A separate video discovered by the research team on YouTube shows a dwarf reed snake cartwheeling at night after it was disturbed with a stick in 2022. The non-venomous reptiles are usually docile and hide under leaf litter or logs, existing on a diet that mostly consists of worms.

The footage shows the snake quickly rolling on two occasions, and in one instance it appears to move for a distance greater than 1.5 metres before hiding under a car.

Dr Quah believes his discovery could have ramifications beyond the world of reptiles, and in decades to come it could influence human-made technologies. “It might help with the design of snake-like robots for exploring hard to reach terrains,” he said.

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