It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.
Love them or loathe them, you have to admit there are few animals so hypnotic to watch move as a snake. With no legs to focus on, the snake seems to move with all parts of its body at once, one fluid and graceful length of momentum. This fluidity, paired with its quick, explosive attacks, is what is mimicked by the kung fu masters of the Snake Style.
Snake Style is primarily a Southern Chinese specialty, characterized by a low stance, quick footwork, and hands held up like twin cobras and stiffened into spears for striking pressure points with blinding speed: eyes, groin, joints, and major blood vessels. Circular parries and attacks may be what best define Snake Style; the arms imitate a snake’s body while striking the opponent from unusual angles. The spirit of the style shares the low, quick, accuracy-obsessed aspects of Mantis with the flexible, slippery, sinuous grace of Crane. A Snake fighter seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once, constantly moving and evading blows, like her namesake. It was popularized in movies by both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, whose small stature and legendary speed lent itself well to the style. Legend has it that the modern Snake Style is an amalgam of what were originally several styles modeled after different species: the coil-and-strike venomous snakes like the viper and the cobra, and the bite-and-constrict method of the python.
So let’s reverse-engineer the kung fu style to find out how snakes really fight. When two snakes go at it, it usually comes down to a matter of wrestling one or the other into submission, and indeed the kung fu style allows for such grappling techniques. But since the style mainly mimics the coil-and-strike method of terrestrial venomous strikes, we’ll focus on that. Like most animals, snakes would strongly prefer not to fight; fleeing or hiding is the first response to a threat, and failing that, warning coloration, or an inflated hood, or emission of noxious smells, or rattling usually gets the message across. (And it isn’t just rattlesnakes that rattle; many species shake the tips of their tails in order to rustle dead leaves.) Only when there’s a complete failure to communicate will it defend itself. A snake such as a viper or cobra can attack from any position, but the classic defense posture is the coiled pedestal: two-thirds of the body is wrapped in a circle on the ground, while the top third forms a wave pattern, so that it can strike and return from a standstill.
If the defensive coil doesn’t work, a venomous snake usually ends up in the “S” pattern. This allows it to move forward or backward with equal ease, and if need be, allows it to lunge forward with greater speed and distance. And for speed, there are few if any that can strike faster than Africa’s deadliest snake, the Puff Adder.
It isn’t the most venomous snake on the continent — that would be the black mamba — but because of its reluctance to flee, it is responsible for 60% of all snakebite fatalities in Africa. Primarily an ambush predator that relies on camouflage and slow, silent movement, the Puff Adder is capable of bursts of speed surprising for such a, er, “stout” viper. In fact, with small animals, it isn’t the cytotoxic (cell-killing) venom that usually kills them, but the force trauma of its strike alone. A single Puff Adder contains enough venom to kill 4 or 5 people at a time, and it is far from a quick and painless death: adder bites are accompanied by necrosis around the bite — essentially, instant gangrene — with oozing blood, nausea and vomiting, and intense pain. But for the purpose of studying its movement, check out the puff adder’s hunting technique in slo-mo:
And then, for fun, watch it kick the ass of a cobra over twice its size:
If cobras could be said to have asses.
Puff adders are capable of striking at the speed of about 14 feet per second. But you know what’s faster than a puff adder? A Snake Style kung fu fighter. Snake boxers can jab an opponent at speeds of almost 5% faster than the real thing. But what truly defines the Snake Style fighter is not their mimicry of the snake’s speed, but of its grace. A snake moves like most energy itself, in a wave pattern, biology and physics simplified. Besides its head, a snake has no specific targets on its body, and the marks on its scales are always shifting, distracting a predator. Fighting a skilled Snake boxer is like fighting water. And the thing about water is that it’s both one of the most pliant and most powerful things on Earth.