Flying snakes, caught on tape (w/ Video)

Nov 23, 2010
This is the flying snake Chrysopelea paradisi. Credit: Copyright Jake Socha.

(PhysOrg.com) -- New video analysis and mathematical modeling by engineers at Virginia Tech reveals how certain types of snakes can "fly" by flinging themselves off their perches, flattening their bodies, and sailing from tree to tree -- work presented today at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in Long Beach, Calif.

Five related species of tree-dwelling snakes found in Southeast and South Asia may just be the worst nightmares of ophidiophobes (people who have abnormal fears of snakes). Not only are they snakes, but they can "fly" -- flinging themselves off their perches, flattening their bodies, and gliding from tree to tree or to the ground.

To Virginia Tech biologist Jake Socha, these curious reptiles are something of a biomechanical wonder. In order to understand how they do what they do, Socha and his colleagues recently studied Chrysopelea paradisi snakes as they launched themselves off a branch at the top of a 15-meter-tall tower.

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Four cameras recorded the curious snakes as they glided. This allowed them to create and analyze 3-D reconstructions of the animals' body positions during flight -- work that Socha is presenting today at the American Physical Society Division of (DFD) meeting in Long Beach, CA.

The reconstructions were coupled with an analytical model of gliding dynamics and the forces acting on the snakes' bodies. The analyses revealed that the reptiles, despite traveling up to 24 meters from the launch platform, never achieved an " gliding" state -- one in which the forces generated by their undulating bodies exactly counteract the force pulling the animals down, causing them to move with constant velocity, at a constant angle from the horizon. Nor did the snakes simply drop to the ground.

This is the flying snake Chrysopelea paradisi. Credit: Copyright Jake Socha.

Instead, Socha says, "the snake is pushed upward -- even though it is moving downward -- because the upward component of the aerodynamic force is greater than the snake's weight."

"Hypothetically, this means that if the snake continued on like this, it would eventually be moving upward in the air -- quite an impressive feat for a snake," he says. But our modeling suggests that the effect is only temporary, and eventually "the hits the ground to end the glide."

Explore further: The unifying framework of symmetry reveals properties of a broad range of physical systems

More information: The presentation, "Gliding flight in snakes: non-equilibrium trajectory dynamics and kinematics" is on Monday, November 22, 2010. Abstract: meetings.aps.org/Meeting/DFD10/Event/133681

Provided by American Institute of Physics

3.9 /5 (11 votes)

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User comments : 3

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trekgeek1
2 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2010
If you're scared of snakes, this must be like a nightmare. Flying snakes!!!
jsa09
3 / 5 (2) Nov 24, 2010
Instead, Socha says, "the snake is pushed upward -- even though it is moving downward -- because the upward component of the aerodynamic force is greater than the snake's weight."


I don't think so. Of course it is pushed upward that is what gliding is - also incidentally falling. The difference here is that the upward force of air slows the rate of decent enough for the snake to maintain controlled fall and land with less force than if it was dropped as a dead weight. The landing has to be slow enough for the snake to come to less harm than if say it took its time and slithered back down the tree and across the ground to the landing site.
thaddeusy
not rated yet Nov 30, 2010
For many individuals, like Indiana Jones, snakes are crawling creatures of nightmare. But "Flying snakes subject to Department of Defense study".The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency really wants to research these southeast Asian flying snakes, however. It's Chrysopelea ornata, or the ornate flying snake. The tree-dwelling serpent typically grows two to three feet long and can glide long distances. The potential is so enticing to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that they're funding a Virginia Tech research of the flying snakes' glide ability, writes the Washington Post.