Axial Differences in the Musculature of Uropeltid Snakes: The Freight-Train Approach to Burrowing

Science  13 Jan 1978:
Vol. 199, Issue 4325, pp. 189-192
DOI: 10.1126/science.199.4325.189


The shield-tailed snakes (family Uropeltidae) extend and widen the tunnels in which they live by alternately curving and straightening the anterior portion of their vertebral columns within the skin, a burrowing method that proves to be most effective for tunneling amid roots and rocks, as well as for producing tunnels wider than the trunk through unpredictably heterogeneous substrates. The muscles of the anterior portion of the uropeltid trunk are larger and thicker than those of the posterior and are further modified by the inclusion of large amounts of myoglobin, numerous mitochondria, and diverse other ultrastructural and enzymatic specializations, which presumably represent adaptations for sustained work loads. The very much thinner, serially homologous, but unmodified musculature of the posterior trunk occupies only a much smaller fraction of the cross-sectional area. This regional modification increases the effectiveness of the posterior body for storing viscera and developing embryos.