Can Snakes Go Backwards?

snake slowing going backwards

As I’ve slowly begun my descent into a snake obsession, I realized that I know so little about these slithering creatures.

This made me wonder if there are more people out there like me trying to find answers to the silliest of snake-related questions, like can snakes go backwards?

Snakes use different techniques to mainly move forward, and most will turn their whole body to go backwards. Some snakes are capable of using their muscles to crawl backwards, if necessary, but that will consume more energy, and the direction of their scales can make it feel unpleasant. 

Whether you’re a snake enthusiast wanting to know more about snake movement or it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve just fallen down a weird internet rabbit hole, we can find out together how exactly snakes can slither backwards!

Can Snakes Slither Backwards?

Walking, swimming, or even slithering backwards isn’t the most efficient type of movement, but it’s something that most animals are capable of except perhaps the kangaroos and Emus.

While moving backwards may not be the preferable direction a snake would slither, this movement still comes with a few benefits. By slithering backwards a snake can slowly back away and retreat if they want to be stealthy when they feel threatened or when they’re hunting.

If this is news to you and you won’t believe it until you see it, then take a moment to look at this tiger snake and how it managed to draw its body backwards.

Most snakes won’t find themselves in situations where this type of backward locomotion is necessary, especially if they can instead retreat by making a turn. But it’s clear that some snakes can and will go backwards.

The tiger snake in the video could simply turn around headfirst, but instead, it chose to back away in this unexpected way.

Perhaps the reason why no one seems to think that snakes are capable of slithering backwards, is the fact that snakes aren’t very active animals in the first place.

Unless snakes are using their speed when they’re actively hunting or slithering away from predators, most snakes usually keep still and move slowly about their day to reserve energy.

So, going backwards wouldn’t be required in most situations. Even if a snake went down a rodent hole, most rodents build underground rooms where a snake can make a U-turn to get out.

How Can Snakes Crawl Backwards?

There are more than 3,000 species of snakes on our planet so of course, it makes sense that some maybe even all of them can crawl backwards, but how do they manage to do it?

Even without limbs, the snake’s anatomy is exactly what makes this animal such an adept crawler.

According to Christal Pollock, DVM, “snakes have between 180 to more than 400 vertebrae. All vertebrae, except the first two cervical bones, bear mobile ribs.”

These vertebrae are attached to the snake’s muscles and according to David Hu a scientist from the New York University “snakes crawl by contracting the muscles that run along their body and pushing against the ground.”

The scales on their body are also important because they offer friction on uneven ground, and by redistributing their weight, snakes can slither quickly and effortlessly forward and backwards.

While crawling backwards might seem unusual for snakes, in situations where they don’t want to be spotted, snakes can slowly back away and retreat using the same muscles they use to move forwards only this time they will use their belly and scales in reverse.

With such flexible bodies, snakes of course can crawl in any direction they want, just as they can climb and swim.

Why Do Snakes Rarely Crawl Backwards?

Most creatures rely on their vision to move in this world and not seeing where they’re going can go against their survival instincts. So, it makes sense that most animals, including snakes, prefer to move forwards, and when they want to retreat they choose to turn around instead of moving backwards.

Of course, most snakes are smart creatures that have unbelievable control over their movements, they have multiple locomotion techniques, and their own body is built to be incredibly flexible, so going backwards is definitely an option they can take.

However, the scales on the snake’s belly that are used to push itself off the ground point backwards to create friction. By also moving backwards, the scales will lose some of that grip, in fact, they may create some resistance, and by getting in the way they could lead to an uncomfortable sensation.

This type of backward maneuvering could also expend a lot of unnecessary energy that snakes always try to preserve. For some snakes slithering or crawling backwards might be unsafe, they can get stuck or become exposed to predators without seeing them.

So, turning its whole body instead is usually the best option, unless slithering backwards is truly the only way they can escape.

How Do Snakes Prefer To Move?

As I’ve already mentioned, snakes have different ways of slithering around, mostly we’ve seen these methods used by these mysterious creatures to crawl forward, but perhaps they use some of them to move backwards as well?

Serpentine Movement

This is definitely the most popular type of movement not only among most snakes but also among legless animals like lizards, earthworms, and others.

As you can already imagine from the name “serpentine movement” the snake’s body creates an S shape and each loop of the snake’s body uses the environment around it to push itself onward.

Since this movement is so common, it’s safe to assume that if a snake was to move backwards, like the tiger snake in the video, they would use the serpentine movement.

Aquatic Lateral Undulation

Similar to serpentine movement, aquatic lateral undulation happens in water.

This video can show you exactly what this S-shaped movement looks like when they’re swimming.

What I find truly fascinating about this venomous snake in the video, is the fact that as it tries to swim backwards it seems to not turn immediately. Perhaps the snake used the current to draw itself back without turning, or it actually did use aquatic lateral undulation to swim backwards.

Sidewinding Movement

The sidewinding locomotion is actually used mostly by vipers and snakes that live in hot areas like the deserts.

It’s quite similar to serpentine locomotion, however, in this case, the snake isn’t moving linearly and forward, but sideway and forward.

Whether a snake is able to sidewind backwards isn’t clear. There isn’t a known case of a snake slithering backwards using sidewinding locomotion. It’s most likely that a snake would turn around and resume to move sideways in the opposite direction.

Rectilinear Movement

The rectilinear or the caterpillar locomotion is another fascinating technique a snake can use to crawl and it does so by keeping its whole body in a straight line.

In this case, snakes will use their belly muscles and periodically shorten and lengthen their belly scales to crawl forward.

It’s possible that the snake could reverse this motion to go backwards without turning, especially if they were trying to exit a hole in the ground, but it could be an uncomfortable type of motion that not all snakes could perform.

Concertina Movement

Last but not least, we have the concertina movement that most snakes use to climb on trees, walls, or on their human handlers!

Basically what the snake does is, anchor part of its body that’s closer to the tail, so it can push the rest of its front body and head in the direction it wants. Visually the snake ends up looking like an accordion in motion.

Since the snake anchors first the back part of its body it might be difficult for it to move backwards without turning, but perhaps some climbing snakes are comfortable moving the head and front part backwards as well as forwards.

Closing Thoughts

You might not be that surprised to hear that most if not all snakes are capable of moving backwards without turning around, but this ability honestly surprised me.

I already think that the way snakes move is close to being magical, especially when they swim in that smooth curved line, so imagining them going backwards is truly impressive.

Of course, there’s rarely a reason for a snake to go backwards, and that’s why there’s not enough evidence out there aside from that tiger snake video.

But what do you think? Can snakes go backwards and have you seen one retreating from you without turning around?