Morphological adaptations to marine life in snakes

François Brischoux*, Richard Shine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


We investigated morphological adaptations to aquatic life within animals that exhibit a structurally simple, elongate body form, i.e., snakes. This linear body plan should impose different biomechanical constraints than the classical streamlined body shape associated with propulsion by fins, feet, or wings. Our measurements of general body shape of terrestrial, amphibious, and marine snakes (all from the same phylogenetic lineage, the Elapidae) show that seasnakes display specialized morphological attributes for life in water. Most notably, the cross-sectional body shape is circular in terrestrial snakes but dorso-ventrally elongated in seasnakes (due to a prominent ventral keel); amphibious species (sea kraits) exhibit an intermediate shape. The tail of amphibious and marine species (a major propulsive structure during swimming) is higher and thinner than in terrestrial snakes (i.e., paddle-shaped) but shorter relative to body length. The evolution of a laterally compressed shape has been achieved by an increase in body height rather than a decrease in body width, possibly reflecting selection for more effective propulsive thrust, and for an ability to maintain hydrodynamic efficiency despite the minor bodily distension inevitably caused by prey items and developing offspring.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-572
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Morphology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptation
  • aquatic life
  • morphology
  • snake


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