Variation in joint shape and soft tissue can alter range of motion (ROM) and create trade-offs between stability and flexibility. The
shape of the distinctive zygosphene–zygantrum joint of snake vertebrae has been hypothesized to prevent axial torsion (twisting),
but its function has never been tested experimentally. We used experimental manipulation of morphology to determine the role of the
zygosphene–zygantrum articulation by micro-computed tomography (μCT) scanning and 3D printing two mid-body vertebrae with
unaltered shape and with the zygosphene digitally removed for four species of phylogenetically diverse snakes. We recorded the angular
ROM while manipulating the models in yaw (lateral bending), pitch (dorsoventral bending) and roll (axial torsion). Removing the
zygosphene typically increased yaw and dorsal pitch ROM. In the normal vertebrae, roll was <2.5 deg for all combinations of pitch and
yaw. Roll increased in altered vertebrae but only for combinations of high yaw and ventral pitch that were near or beyond the limits of
normal vertebra ROM. In the prairie rattlesnake and brown tree snake, roll in the altered vertebrae was always limited by bony processes
other than the zygosphene, whereas in the altered vertebrae of the corn snake and boa constrictor, roll ROM was unconstrained when
the pre- and post-zygapophyses no longer overlapped. The zygosphene acts as a bony limit for yaw and dorsal pitch, indirectly
preventing roll by precluding most pitch and yaw combinations where roll could occur and potentially allowing greater forces to be applied across the vertebral column than would be possible with only soft-tissue constraints.
This dataset of multiple snake vertebrae was collected using a Skyscan Micro-CT 1172 scanner, segmented using Adobe Photoshop and FIJI, and finally manipulated and rendered using a combination of FIJI, MeshLab, and Meshmixer.