Snakes. On a Plane. In Free-fall.

At this point in my blogging career, my love of wacky research has become increasingly well documented (see previous posts The Best of Pubmed Part 1 and Part 2). So I'm sure no one will be surprised to learn of my excitement when I learned about the following study via the lovely bloggers over at ScienceBlogs. The research in question was published in April 2005 in the journal Zoology under the title of "The Behavioral Responses of Amphibians and Reptiles to Microgravity on Parabolic Flights". Translation: Snakes. On a plane. In freefall.

In honor of the course in the Neurobiology of Behavior that so many Neuroscience students are currently working hard to survive, below is a synopsis of this most epic paper. I highly encourage rampant discussion in the comments section regarding the scientific merit of this paper, as well as proposed projects to expand upon its findings.

Note: It turns out there is a rich literature regarding the behavioral consequences of exposure to altered gravity. My favorite segment of this literature? The one concerned with the "Gravitational Neurobiology of Fish".

1) What was the main question asked in the paper?

How do various reptiles and amphibians react when abruptly exposed to microgravity? Specifically, what behavioral patterns can be observed, and how do these patterns compare to behavior observed in normal gravity? Really, the question is how various species perceive "weightlessness".

2) What (novel) techniques were used?

Researchers collected 53 animals from 23 species of amphibians and reptiles. They were loaded onto a large plane (a Falcon 20), and taken on a parabolic flight. Researchers filmed the behavior of the animals, presumably which simultaneously quoting prolifically from Samuel L. Jackson.

3) What results were reported?

Depending on the animal, the researchers report different behavioral responses to sudden weightlessness. Some animals didn't move much, others attempted to righten themselves, producing large whole-body motions as if they were trying to grab at something to stabilize themselves. Still other animals displayed a behavior described in the paper as "a skydiving posture". As for the snakes, several species moved around until they'd knotted their tails around their bodies, at which point they settled down.

4) What conclusions did the authors draw from their results, and were these conclusions justified?

The researchers seemed most interested in the behavior exhibited by the snake species that knotted their tails around their bodies. To paraphrase the paper, the fact that these snakes became quiescent after successfully knotting themselves up suggests that the snakes brains gives higher priority to proprioceptive input from their body over the vestibular input. The authors suggest that the proprioceptive input was being interpreted by the snake as stable physical contact, and not as a self-embrace occurring during free-fall. Which is interesting, as it suggests a hierarchy for the interpretation of competing information from sensory modalities. However, being not an expert in the responses of animals to microgravity, I can't really comment on the validity of the results - but I highly encourage any experts in snake-chucking that we have in the audience to leave comments.

The best part of this paper is inevitably the figures, which include pictures and 10 fantastic videos of animals in the middle of their free-fall behavior, most notably the self-embracing snake (see video below).

Wassersug et al. The Behavioral Responses of Amphibians and Reptiles to Microgravity on Parabolic Flights. Zoology (Jena). 2005: 108(2): 107-20.

The hysterical original post on Science Blogs, by Jason G. Goldman, who makes all the required Indian Jones and Snakes on a Plane jokes.


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog