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J Exp Zool A Ecol Genet Physiol. 2012 Mar;317(3):152-72. doi: 10.1002/jez.1710. Epub 2012 Feb 6.

Drinking in snakes: resolving a biomechanical puzzle.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Lehigh University, Williams Annex, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA.


Snakes have long been thought to drink with a two-phase buccal-pump mechanism, but observations that some snakes can drink without sealing the margins of their mouths suggest that buccal pumping may not be the only drinking mechanism used by snakes. Here, we report that some snakes appear to drink using sponge-like qualities of specific regions of the oropharyngeal and esophageal mucosa and sponge-compressing functions of certain muscles and bones of the head. The resulting mechanism allows them to transport water upward against the effects of gravity using movements much slower than those of many other vertebrates. To arrive at this model, drinking was examined in three snake species using synchronized ciné and electromyographic recordings of muscle activity and in a fourth species using synchronized video and pressure recordings. Functional data were correlated with a variety of anatomical features to test specific predictions of the buccal-pump model. The anatomical data suggest explanations for the lack of conformity between a buccal-pump model of drinking and the performance of the drinking apparatus in many species. Electromyographic data show that many muscles with major functions in feeding play minor roles in drinking and, conversely, some muscles with minor roles in feeding play major roles in drinking. Mouth sealing by either the tongue or mental scale, previously considered critical to drinking in snakes, is incidental to drinking performance in some species. The sponge mechanism of drinking may represent a macrostomatan exaptation of mucosal folds, the evolution of which was driven primarily by the demands of feeding.

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