Yes, all snakes can swim — here’s how they do it

Whether you love snakes or avoid them, you’re probably fascinated by them. Unlike other reptiles, snakes don’t have arms or legs. Yet, even without appendages, snakes can move across many different types of terrain. They can make their way up mountainsides, and they can slither to the tops of trees. Some can even leap and glide from branch to branch!

But have you ever wondered which snakes can swim? Well, the answer, interestingly, is all of them.

And no, swimming ability doesn’t depend on whether a snake is venomous or not. They all can swim, with some swimming partially submerged with only their heads above the water, and others with practically their entire bodies gliding on the water’s surface.

The next question, then, is how do snakes swim without any limbs?

In the article below, we’ll discuss exactly how and why some of these slithering serpents go for a dive and others ride the waves!

A Water Snake and Water Lily
Image by Gerhard G./Pixabay

Snakes move in four ways

To understand how snakes can swim, you need to know how they move at all. Now, snakes move about in four ways. A snake’s entire body is lined with muscle underneath its scales, and it uses those muscles and scales in combination to move across the landscape.

Concertina method

In tight spaces, one might observe a snake using the concertina method to move. It sounds a bit like how an inchworm moves, actually. First, the snake anchors the rear of its body by pressing against the ground or an object. It then pushes forward with the rest of its body. Then it drops its head and sort of hangs on to the ground with its chin while skootching the rest of its body forward.

Rectilinear method

In this method, the snake creeps forward in a straight line. It’s a slow crawl, and the snake basically uses the broad scales on its stomach to clutch the earth and push itself forward.

Serpentine method

This is the kind of movement that you normally think of when you picture a snake slithering across the ground. This movement is wavy. The snake pushes off from a resting state from just about anything next it. It then uses that momentum to stay in motion, undulating its body and using its belly scales to push itself forward.

Sidewinding

Snakes primarily use this type of motion when they’re on a surface that’s hard for their stomach scales to grip, such as mud or sand. The snake will throw its head forward and wriggle its body in the same direction. As its body moves, the snake throws its head forward yet again, so its motion continues.

Anaconda in a Jungle River
Image by Kira Hoffmann/Pixabay

How do snakes swim?

So far so good, but how exactly do snakes move their bodies through water? How do they seem to glide on the surface of the water?

The answer is that snakes use nearly the same motions in water as they do on land. When you see a snake essentially bodysurfing across the top of the water, it’s most often using the serpentine method discussed above. That’s true whether on a pond, a lake, and sometimes even on the sea

The snake uses the surface tension of the water combined with its undulating movement to stay afloat. Remember the law that states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction? Well, when a snake undulates in the water, drawing what amounts to an “S” with its body, it applies force to the water behind it.

That force propels the snake forward through the water.

Not all snakes swim as well as others

Although most snakes move quite well on land, the same cannot be said for moving in or across the water. Of course, certain snake species have adapted to an aquatic environment, such as sea snakes. These snakes are expert swimmers. Certain freshwater snake species are also better swimmers than their mostly terrestrial counterparts.

Snakes that have adapted to a life near or in water have bodies that are a little more flattened, and some even have tails that may remind you of a paddle. Of course, this helps them dart forward and move faster and more efficiently than land-based snakes.

Additionally, some sea snakes are known to travel great distances, sometimes from island to island!

So, water is no barrier to snakes. All of them can swim using the same four movements that propel them over land (and trees and mountains) even without limbs. Some snakes skim and some submerge to get through water, but all of them can navigate this challenging part of their environment.

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