We all know that snakes strike in the blink of an eye, and that rattlesnakes and other deadly vipers strike fastest of all -- or so many people say.
But a new series of high-speed videos shows that the strikes of nonvenomous snakes can be just as swift as a viper's, and that the heads of striking snakes accelerate at absolutely astonishing rates.
"The maximum accelerations produced during the strikes are far higher than what a normal human would ever experience in their day-to-day life," David A. Penning, a biology graduate student at the University of Louisiana and the leader of the study for which the videos were made, told The Huffington Post.
That's actually a bit of an understatement. Penning's study showed that snake strikes can produce accelerations more extreme than even those experienced by fighter pilots.
In the fastest strike seen in the study, the snake's head accelerated at a pace almost 29 times greater than the acceleration caused by gravity. A fighter pilot -- even with special training and G-suits -- can withstand a "g-force" of 10 to 15 for short periods, Penning said, citing the existing scientific literature. Beyond that, the pilot will black out.
For the study, published March 15 in the journal Biology Letters, Penning and his collaborators at the university compared two species of vipers, western cottonmouths and western diamondback rattlesnakes, with harmless Texas rat snakes. In all, 32 individual snakes were tested for strike distance, acceleration and maximum speed. (The video at top, slowed down to one-tenth of actual speed, shows a rattlesnake striking a stuffed glove, followed by a rat snake striking the glove.)
The researchers found that the "strike performance" of the rat snakes met or exceeded that of the vipers, with both harmless and venomous snakes hitting their targets in as little as 50 milliseconds.
That's faster than many prey animals are able to react. It's also far faster than the blink of a human eye, which the researchers say takes about 200 milliseconds.
"I was quite shocked to see the short strike durations and high strike accelerations coming from an unassuming, easily found rat snake," Penning told Live Science.
When it comes to speedy strikes, the rat snake may have nothing on other species. As Penning told Smithsonian.com, "Based on what we've seen, my guess is that there are faster ones."