How Flying Snakes Fly

February 3, 2014




Ever wanted to know how the paradise flying snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) is able to glide from tree branch to tree branch? A Virginia Tech professor has found out the intricate details in how these snakes are able to make the jump.  Professor Jake Socha has published his findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology and says that these snakes, at first glance in their normal body position, shouldn't be able to glide. But when it launches into the air, its body makes a huge transformation, changing from its typical snake-like and round look to that of a flattened snake, almost disc-like in shape. "They turn their whole body into one aerodynamic surface", said Socha, who has spent a large chunk of his career finding out exactly how this snake glides through the air and is now researching how the animal creates lift to stay airborne.

 

From its head to the tail, the snake flattens itself to create lift and while it does this, its ribs start to rotate forward toward the head and upward toward the spine, Socha said. This makes the snake almost double its normal width, creating a cross-sectional shape that is more conducive to "gliding."

 "The snake is definitely not an intuitive glider. When you look at it, you say: 'that thing should not be able to glide'. And in its normal body configuration that is probably true," Socha told the BBC. "But when it enters the air, when it takes off and jumps and leaps from a branch, it massively transforms its body."

Socha and his team then looked at the aerodynamics involved with the snake's new body positioning and what changes the new shape would generate to the air. They created a plastic model of the snake's flattened body and placed it in a tank of flowing water and measured the forces on the model snake, using lasers and high speed cameras to visualize how the water flow's movement changed direction. Socha then determined that the snake, when in flight, creates an aerodynamic force that is comparable to that of a scaled-down wing plane.

"It is moving its head from side to side, it is passing waves down the body and it looks like the animal is swimming in the air," Socha said.

The flying snake is of the genus Chrysopelea and is a colubrid snake that is known to glide from tree branch to tree branch. There are five known species of the flying snake and are mildly venomous. They can be found on mainland Southeast Asia as well as Greater and Lesser Sundas, Maluku and the Philippines, and China, India, and Sri Lanka. They eat lizards, frogs, birds and bats and hunt during the day. The paradise tree snake used in Socha's study grows to about three feet in length are black with green scales. Popular in the European pet trade, the paradise flying snake is considered one of the best flyers among the flying snakes.

Photo by Jake Socha/©2014 by The Company of Biologists Ltd.

The paradise flying snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) looks as if it is swimming through the air as it glides from tree to tree.

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