For many years now, scientists have wondered how reptiles from five related species of Chrysopelea paradisi, commonly known as 'flying' snakes, can stay afloat as they leap from one tree to the next, sometimes covering a distance of as much as 79 feet - Now, a new study has revealed that it may be all to do with the way they move.
The report was published by Virginia Tech scientist, Jake Socha who has been researching the aerodynamics of gliding snakes for a number of years. He began his research by first focusing on the reptiles launch technique. He discovered that the snakes first completely flatten themselves and then undulating or slithering side to side, they glide rapidly at a pace of between 26-33 feet per second, before leaping off.
His latest study focused on how the snakes actually 'fly' once they launch off a 49-foot tower above the ground. To examine this, the researchers first put white dots on the snake's bodies, so they could monitor the position of the reptile at each point during the flight. Socha and his colleagues then videotaped the flight and here is what they discovered.
Unlike during the launch, when the snakes are flat and horizontal, once they take off, their bodies actually tilt at about a 25-degree angle relative to the airflow created by their flight. Also, when they first leap, the snakes start to drop altitude to pick up speed. Then, with the front of their bodies held rigid, they start a strange air-slithering dance, by undulating from side to side. This essentially turns their entire body into one giant wing, allowing them to glide or parachute, across long distances.
What's even more interesting, is that some of the reptiles even manage to rotate their entire bodies, whilst they are airborne. How they do this remains a mystery, one that Mr. Socha is hoping to solve next!
The findings are not only exciting because it solves the mystery of how the snakes are able to defy gravity, but also, because the same principals could be used to build small agile flying instruments, something that seems to have peaked the interest of even the US Department of Defense, who is partially funding Mr. Socha's research.
The five species of flying snakes that are native to South and South East Asia, spend most of their lives atop trees in the lowland tropical forests, They grow between 2-3 feet long and about as wide as a human finger. As would be expected, the smaller, lighter ones are more agile and able to 'glide' for longer distances then their bigger, heavier counterparts. While the temperament varies from species to species, even the most venomous ones are practically harmless to humans - poisonous only to geckos. These are not the only wingless animals that can fly - there are flying frogs and flying lizards that use similar gliding techniques to make their way across the forests.