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The mechanics and muscular control of constriction in gopher snakes ( Pituophis melanoleucus ) and a king snake ( Lampropeltis getula )

Journal of Zoology
Wiley Blackwell (Blackwell Publishing)
Publication Date


Constriction of prey by gopher snakes Pituophis melanoleucus and king snakes Lampropeltis getula is highly variable in posture, muscular activity and force exertion. These snakes typically use lateral bends of the anterior trunk to wind the body into a vertical coil around the prey. Three common constriction postures are fully encircling loops that form a coil, partially encircling loops, and non-encircling loops that pinion the prey. Initial tightening of a coil occurs by winding or pressing the loops tighter to reduce the diameter of the coil. The epaxial muscles are highly active during striking and coil formation and intermittently active during sustained constriction. These results refute the hypothesis of a mechanical constraint on constriction in snakes with elongate epaxial muscles. Constricting gopher and king snakes can detect muscular, ventilatory and circulatory movements in rodent prey. In response to simulated heartbeats or ventilation in mice, the snakes twitch visibly, recruit epaxial muscle activity, and increase constriction pressure temporarily, but then quickly relax. Muscular activity and constriction pressure are increased most and sustained longest in response to muscular struggling in prey. Although muscle activity and pressure exertion are intermittent, the constriction posture is maintained until the prey has been completely still for several seconds; thus, a snake can reapply pressure in response to any circulatory, ventilatory or muscular movement by the prey. The pressures of 6.1–30.9 kPa (46–232 mm Hg) exerted on small mammal prey by constricting snakes range from about half to over twice a mouse's systolic blood pressure, and are probably 10 times larger than the venous pressure. These high pressures probably kill mammalian prey by inducing immediate circulatory and cardiac arrest, rather than by suffocation alone.

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