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By that I mean someone who looks roughly like this:

I'm not going to use the L-word.

(Note: the name that is increasingly common to associate with this kind of creature is Lamia. The mythical Lamia carried around a snake skin, but was not part snake herself)

Snakes have four different ways of moving around, as described here:

Is a group of snakes called a slither? Because it should be.

Let's assume that all the organs for digestion and reproduction are in roughly the same place as they are with humans (don't ask me how they'd use a toilet though). This means that everything below the genetalia is essentially one big mass of muscle. Fun fact: this means that such a snake person has a bigger tail-to-body ratio than an actual snake. This creature will have to hold up its torso, hips and enough of its body so that it is of average human height, and has to propel itself fowards with the rest of its body. Which of these four ways would be the best for a snake person like above?

I am looking for the way that has the best ratio of speed VS the strain put on its body. Would one of the four above options work out? Or would it require another form of movement?

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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought of it as the serpentine motion, but from the waist down. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Feb 4 '16 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, a bit like the snow snake I molded with the kids :) I vote for serpentine too. That's how I pictured my creation moving. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Feb 4 '16 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ (This is not a scientific answer, so I'm just including it as a comment.) If the creature is intelligent enough, it could use different means of locomotion depending on its mood or the circumstances. Similar to how humans walk, strut, tip-toe, skip, jog, etc. In addition, all individuals have different gaits, which may be based on physiology but may also be based on mood (marching vs. slouching), energy level (gliding vs. staggering), or image it wants to display (swaggering, skipping, etc.). $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Feb 4 '16 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Note that it may depend on the soil on which they evolved, since sidewinding is specifically for sand (AFAIK). $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Feb 4 '16 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'm surprised neither this question nor its answers mention Naga yet. There might be some useful ideas researching that; for example Naga (of D&D), or Nāga (religious deities). $\endgroup$ – JYelton Feb 9 '16 at 18:02
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My guess is that it would use all four types of movement, depending on terrain; however, it would likely use serpentine movement the most.

  • Concertina is an inefficient, though powerful grab-and-push movement; the snake bunches up, then pushes with its tail, shoving itself forward. With a huge, heavy, muscular tail, it makes sense to use this method, especially in areas other than flat ground. It's very useful for traversing in tree or along rough ground, as the area between "grabs" is effectively ignored. However, it is also very slow; snakes using this method rarely move faster than 2% of their length per second.
  • Serpentine motion uses friction to slide along the ground. For flat ground, it's efficient and simple. It takes less energy than concertina, but more than sidewinding. It can also be used to swim.
  • Sidewinding uses a sliding, stepping movement to move across slick or rolling surfaces. Direction of travel is diagonal. Unlike serpentine motion, which uses sliding friction to move, sidewinding uses static friction: any part of the snake touching the ground does not move.
  • Caterpillar movement uses static friction as well, lifting a portion of its body, moving forward, then pulling backward while the forward scales are on the ground. It's slow, but nearly silent. Moreover, the only part of the snake in motion is the muscles controlling its scales; the snake doesn't bend. Many snakes use this method to hunt.

With that in mind, I expect a snake-person as you described to usually move along solid ground with a serpentine motion, sidewinding on unstable or slippery ground, using the caterpillar movement to stalk prey, and finally using concertina to climb or traverse difficult/unstable ground.

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The fastest, most efficient means of locomotion for a serpentine being is for it to roll itself into a hoop and roll around like a wheel. It can provide propulsive effort by flattening the loop slightly similar to a caterpillar track and flexing and extending its body in the appropriate way, or it can form a perfect circle and take advantage of inertia to keep it moving. It can steer by flexing its body from side to side, and could conceivably turn in little more than its own diameter.

It could be expected that on level ground, such a being using this method of locomotion could easily outpace and outdistance any creature using a method of locomotion that involves reciprocating limbs or any other variety of serpentine locomotion. It could conceivably keep pace with some slower or even medium-speed birds. A speed of 100kph sustained for over an hour or more is not inconceivable, but this would be approaching a maximum practical speed.

This is all well and good in theory, however there are also a few potential drawbacks:

  • A lamia's body, coiled into a ring, might be unbalanced. This could be overcome to some extent by overlapping the thinner end of the tail with the torso, and this would also protect the torso somewhat.

  • This would require that the ground be pretty smooth. Obstacles such as medium-sized rocks might cause injury if impacted at any speed. However, roads and herbivore-grazed plains would be ideal terrain. On rougher, less level terrain, the other forms of serpentine locomotion the OP mentioned would be required.

  • Balance might be an issue. If a lamia relies on anything like a human's system of semicircular canals in the inner ear, such rotation could cause dizziness. However, since several other species move in a manner at least similar to this, this is not an insurmountable problem.

  • It would be difficult for the lamia to see where it was going. It might need to put its head out of the loop to the side, or turn its torso so that it was looking over its shoulder. Either way, there would be a significant part of the rolling cycle in which the lamia could not be looking where it was going. It would need pretty good eyesight to be able to see obstacles a sufficient distance ahead, and it would also need fast eyes so that it could form clear images despite its rotation. This would lead to an increase in its flicker-fusion frequency, meaning that a lamia would likely see a human movie at a mere 25 FPS as being a series of static images.

  • The faster the lamia moves in this manner, the greater the centripetal forces attempting to pull its body out of its loop. Lamiae would likely need to evolve some sort of latching mechanism in order to keep their body in shape at higher speeds, or the lamiae may need to resort to artificial harnesses in order to overcome this limitation.

Still, despite all these limitations and problems, if they could be overcome, it would change lamiae from a slow, lumbering species with poor endurance to the fastest, longest-distance cursorial species the world has yet seen, humans included.

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  • $\begingroup$ If this method is so fast and efficient, why don't any real-life snakes use it? Or do they? What do you mean when you say "several other species move in a manner at least similar to this"? $\endgroup$ – sumelic Feb 5 '16 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ @sumelic, I've added a link that should expand on these. The most notable rolling species is the pangolin, which is known to be self- rather than just gravity- powered. The problem is that hoop locomotion would require a pretty big leap in an evolutionary sense unless there is also the modifying factor of intelligence, after which it is just a matter of evolving refinements. Snakes really aren't that smart. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 5 '16 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's very interesting! But some caterpillars use it--surely they aren't smarter than all the snakes in the word? $\endgroup$ – sumelic Feb 5 '16 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ @sumelic, they're also smaller and less affected by irregularities in their surface. A snake, being larger, could be injured. Besides, snakes are low-energy ambush predators, often with venom for defence. This meant that evolutionarily they have gone in the opposite direction from a species that has a need to be fast for any significant length of time. A caterpillar on the other hand, may need to get away from a predator fast. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 5 '16 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the mas, gyroscopic effect might help the balance problem. Vision is perhaps no more so than the rolling creatures in the Wikipedia reference. Sometimes when I have to walk towards the sunset or sunrise, I close my eyes and just take a quick peek every now and then. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Mar 20 '18 at 18:13

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