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On the head of snakes: form, function and adaptation to life in dense media

Project description

Diving head-first into the form–function conundrum

Structure is often integrally related to function, from a key and its ability to open a lock to a wing and a bird’s ability to fly. Environment plays a determining role in the functions organisms require or benefit from, and so it is not surprising that environmental factors can influence evolution and diversity. How ‘environment’ is defined can affect the outcome of form–function studies, yet it is often rather arbitrary. With the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, the HeadStrong project is studying head shape in aquatic and burrowing snakes to figure out if the densities of the snakes’ environments may be the key to adaptations of this characteristic.


Environments impact organism diversity and drive convergence—whereby distantly related species share phenotypes due to adaptation to similar environments (e.g. bird, bat wings). Evolutionary studies of ‘environment’ often apply arbitrary categories (e.g. fossorial, arboreal) that vaguely blend biotic and abiotic factors, limiting quantitative studies of form-function links. Innovatively, this project will test the hypothesis that a continuous physical variable (substrate density) has driven head shape adaptation. Under this hypothesis, a density gradient mirrors a phenotypic response gradient. Snakes are a superb system to study head shape adaptations because of: 1) spectacular taxonomic and phenotypic diversity, including many independent origins of aquatic and burrowing forms, and 2) limblessness, requiring snake heads to adapt to demands for locomotion as well as feeding, and protecting sensory organs. Similarities in aquatic and burrowing snake heads have been explained by adaptation to mostly unspecified environmental factors. Testing the hypothesis that variation in head shape is explained by substrate density will provide a fresh perspective on debates about the possibly aquatic or burrowing origin of snakes. I will quantify: a) head shape of snakes living in substrates of various densities, b) mechanical forces undergone by heads and skulls during headfirst locomotion, c) integration among head, skull and braincase shape. These data will be analysed in a comparative phylogenetic framework. HeadStrong combines 3D imaging, mechanics experiments with a snake-like robot and computer simulations that will be performed in globally leading institutions with unrivalled resources in terms of a vast reptile collection, outstanding imaging facilities, and expert staff. HeadStrong’s originality and interdisciplinary nature will generate exceptional datasets and high-profile outputs and establish the applicant as an innovative leader in functional biology.



Net EU contribution
€ 224 933,76
Cromwell road
SW7 5BD London
United Kingdom

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London Inner London — West Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham
Activity type
Public bodies (excluding Research Organisations and Secondary or Higher Education Establishments)
Other funding
€ 0,00