Scientists studying the amazing gliding proficiency of an Asian
species known as the paradise tree snake say it does two things as
it goes airborne. It splays its ribs in order to flatten its profile
from round into a more triangular form, and it undulates while
airborne — sort of swimming through the air.
Researchers led by Jake Socha, an expert in biomechanics at Virginia
Tech, replicated in a plastic model the shape the snake assumes
while airborne, and tested it to evaluate its aerodynamic qualities.
They placed the snake model in a water tunnel and used a laser to
track flow patterns around the model.
"Our expectations going in were that it would not be very good
because it does not look like a classically streamlined,
airplane-type cross-sectional shape," Socha said in a telephone
interview on Thursday.
"What we got were some surprising aerodynamic characteristics. In
fact, it was much better than we anticipated," Socha added.
The paradise tree snake is one of the world's five species of flying
snakes, all from the genus Chrysopelea. To be precise, they are
gliders, not actual flyers like birds and bats that achieve powered
The mildly venomous snake — green and black with occasional touches
of red and orange — has a diameter roughly equal to a human finger
and is up to three feet (one meter) long. It lives in rain forests
in Southeast Asia and South Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia,
Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The snake takes to the air from trees, and is capable of gliding
about 100 feet. Socha said its gliding ability enables the snake to
escape trouble and to get from one place to the next efficiently. He
doubted that the creature is taking to the air in order to spot prey
like lizards below.
"You can glide to a tree 30 meters away much more quickly than if
you had to slither down the tree and then slither across the forest
floor and then climb back up that tree," said Socha, whose research
was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
[to top of second column]
This snake is one of numerous animals around the world that can
glide through the air. Six types of mammals are gliders, including
flying squirrels and an arboreal critter called the colugo. Some
lizards also glide, including the Draco lizard and some geckos.
There are even gliding frogs and gliding wingless ants, as well as
types of flying fish and even gliding squid.
Scientists are eager to unlock the secrets of flying snakes,
especially considering that a snake shape would seem to be bad for
aerodynamics. This study was funded in part by the Pentagon's
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which Socha said
was interested in the basic science behind what makes the snakes
To people with ophidiophobia, the idea of a flying snake may be
nightmarish. But Socha offered some reassuring thoughts.
"They are small and they're effectively harmless," Socha said. "And
to tell you the truth, they're much more scared of you than you are
of them. If you are near them, they're gliding away from you and not
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.