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What Happens to a Snake in Zero Gravity


(Video Link)

Today is World Snake Day. To mark the occasion, Jason G. Goldman of io9 describes how different animals respond to the microgravity that they experience on Vomit Comet aircraft. We've already seen spiders and cats respond to a situation that must be inexplicable to them. What about other species? Goldman writes:

Most animals perceive the weightlessness of microgravity as if they were falling upside down. If you drop a cat from a great height, for example, it will roll over to attempt to land on its feet. This is called the "righting response." In microgravity, this leads to repeated rolling-over.

Scientists have interpreted the repeated rolling-over as a repetitive righting response, since the animal never gets any feedback that the action was successfully executed. This behavioral pattern is common and has been observed for various mammals, frogs, and turtles in microgravity.

Snakes, however, often attack themselves or bunch up. This may be because a snake in microgravity has trouble distinguishing its own body from its surrounding environment:

In this study, the researchers loaded a bunch of snakes onto a Vomit Comet. These are planes that fly in parabolas: as the plane moves over the top of the curve, everything inside is temporarily weightless. At the bottom of the curve, it the pull of gravity actually feels a bit stronger.

Here's a video of one snake, Elaphe obsoleta, in microgravity. In the first parabola, the snake eventually knotted its tail and ceased all other body movements. In the second parabola the snake knotted its whole body and once again ceased moving while in microgravity. This posture was held through the next parabola and in the intervening time between the parabolas.

While the researchers didn't observe the self-attack behaviors seen previously, the knotting behavior that they did observe in many of their snakes still reflects a basic loss of proprioception. When snakes become stressed out, they sometimes bunch together in a group in order to relax. Which, in a way, is exactly what that airborne snake did in microgravity.

In the absence of gravity, it appears as if snakes have a difficulty distinguishing self from non-self.

[Emphasis added.]


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A professor from which university? Any US university receiving federal grants is required by law to have am "Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee" that oversees the care and use of vertebrates in research, and has a bunch of requirements for documenting procedures, inspections, and accountability for such things to the federal government. Besides the things they are supposed to be looking out for, they would block anything illegal because universities (at least all of the ones I'm familiar with) get very touchy about getting close to breaking the law, especially if just for research, because they don't want to take risks. That said, part of the issue will be what the law actually limits people to (e.g. neither of the two brown bat species are protected at the federal level, just at some local levels).

At least in that case, it should have been straightforward to deal with. If you come across a random poacher in the woods, the authorities finding them again can be near impossible depending on how smart the poacher is, but a professor will be quite easy to locate again and charge with any crime committed.
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So, they torment a snake in zero g and it's "science" but I send a mouse up on a model rocket and I'm a monster?

Seriously, this is bullshit.

A friend a while back came upon a college professor and his grad students in a national park taking protected brown bats, gluing a piece of tubing to their back, and letting them fly on a string between trees to "measure how fast they fly" every bat received serious head injuries. They had no permit. But it was ok.... For science.
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Thanks for responding, Guy. While I certainly understand your reasoning, I would hope that by the time we are forced to leave the Earth we will have perfected some means of keeping the animal in the most natural state possible. At the very least, give the poor snake a Valium so he doesn't keep gnawing on himself! ;-)

Thanks again! :-)
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Thank you for your well thought out answer. What you say does make sense. Though I loath the possibility of this being a "Lets see how this works in space just out of curiosity" experiment, at the same time (as someone who is fascinated with animal behavior) it is interesting to see how the animal does respond.

I do hope that while this is going on with the snake and any other animal, that it is treated with the respect and love it deserves.

Thanks again.
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