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Title: Functional consequences of convergently evolved microscopic skin features on snake locomotion
The small structures that decorate biological surfaces can significantly affect behavior, yet the diversity of animal–environment interactions essential for survival makes ascribing functions to structures challenging. Microscopic skin textures may be particularly important for snakes and other limbless locomotors, where substrate interactions are mediated solely through body contact. While previous studies have characterized ventral surface features of some snake species, the functional consequences of these textures are not fully understood. Here, we perform a comparative study, combining atomic force microscopy measurements with mathematical modeling to generate predictions that link microscopic textures to locomotor performance. We discover an evolutionary convergence in the ventral skin structures of a few sidewinding specialist vipers that inhabit sandy deserts—an isotropic texture that is distinct from the head-to-tail-oriented, micrometer-sized spikes observed on a phylogenetically broad sampling of nonsidewinding vipers and other snakes from diverse habitats and wide geographic range. A mathematical model that relates structural directionality to frictional anisotropy reveals that isotropy enhances movement during sidewinding, whereas anisotropy improves movement during slithering via lateral undulation of the body. Our results highlight how an integrated approach can provide quantitative predictions for structure–function relationships and insights into behavioral and evolutionary adaptations in biological systems.
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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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National Science Foundation
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