When Sand-Slithering Snakes Behave Like Light Waves

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Georgia Tech undergraduate student Lillian Chen demonstrates how she and colleague Alex Hubbard studied snakes as they moved through an arena covered with shag carpet to mimic sand. (Photo: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech)

A Western Shovel-nosed snake moves through a force-sensitive set of rubber pegs. The pegs altered the direction of the snakes’ travel, but didn’t vary the waveform they used to move. (Photo: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech)

Perrin Schiebel, a recent Georgia Tech Ph.D. graduate, shows how snakes were placed into an arena to observe how they responded to obstacles. The snakes use an S-shaped wave to move through the sand and did not alter it when encountering a set of rubber pegs. (Photo: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech)

Snakes slithering across the desert sand at night can encounter obstacles such as plants or twigs that alter the direction of their travel. While studying that motion to learn how limbless animals control their bodies in such environments, Georgia Tech researchers discovered that snakes colliding with an obstacle behave much like light waves encountering an optical diffraction grating. What they learned could improve the control systems of future snake-like robots.

Researchers (l-r) Perrin Schiebel, Lillian Chen, Jennifer Rieser and Dan Goldman are shown with a snake moving through an experimental arena. (Photo: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech)