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This shy little snake can cartwheel to safety

<i>Eng Wah Teo/Alamy Stock Photo</i><br/>The small
Alamy Stock Photo
Eng Wah Teo/Alamy Stock Photo
The small

By Amy Woodyatt, CNN

From flying through the air to turning their bodies into a lasso and climbing smooth surfaces, we thought we’d seen snakes do it all. Now, researchers have discovered a species that can actually cartwheel.

Found in some areas of Southeast Asia, including southern Thailand, peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, Borneo and the Philippines, the dwarf reed snake — Pseudorabdion longiceps — is small and nocturnal, and hides in leaf litter or under rocks or logs during the day, researchers note. Even so, its small size makes it vulnerable to birds and other snakes, such as the striped coral snake.

Small snakes often have an impressive arsenal to use in their defense against potential predators, including camouflage, coloration, odors, playing dead, intimidation, and just … fleeing.

There had been anecdotal reports that the dwarf reed snake could cartwheel as means of escape, but researchers have for the first time documented the unusual defense mechanism, in a paper published Wednesday in the Biotropica journal.

While they were conducting herpetological surveys for other species, researchers came across a startled adult dwarf reed snake that began “throwing the coils of its body into a loop and began rolling to try and escape,” managing to move around 1.5 meters (around 5 feet) down the road in less than five seconds.

“As cartwheeling appears to be very metabolically taxing, the snakes cannot sustain it for long periods of time, and it usually lasts only a few seconds,” corresponding author Evan Seng Huat Quah, of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told CNN in an email.

“By cartwheeling down an incline, the snake was able to gain speed and rapidly cover more ground. The snake was captured and placed on a flat area along the side of the road where it repeated the cartwheeling behavior several times,” researchers wrote in the paper.

Quah, who had seen the “surprising” behavior in a dwarf reed snake before, was thrilled that his team had recording equipment on hand.

They observed that the snake “performs active cartwheeling by repeatedly launching the coils of its body into the air and rolling down inclines,” according to a news release. This behavior hasn’t been formally observed in any other species of snake or reptile, the team added, though rolling as an escape method has been recorded in some invertebrates, like moth caterpillars and desert spiders.

But don’t worry — in the unlikely event that you encounter them, the dwarf reed snakes won’t be cartwheeling at you for no reason.

The snakes usually employ the curious method of locomotion when they feel threatened and want to evade capture. Researchers also speculate that they could do it to startle and confuse predators, including other snakes.

“This sudden movement not only startles and confuses visually oriented predators, cartwheeling would also leave a patchy scent trail that could throw predators off their scent, giving the snake more time to escape,” Quah told CNN.

Quah said his team thinks the behavior may go beyond the dwarf reed snake and be found in other species, “especially reed snakes of the family Calamariinae. There are anecdotal reports of other species performing this behavior including another member of the same genus, Pseudorabdion albonuchalis,” also known as the white-collared reed snake.

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