Scientists Uncover How Flying Snakes Fly
We’ve all seen a snake before, right? They’re long, thin, slithery things, with no arms, legs, and certainly no wings. So how on Earth do some of them fly?
Okay, strictly speaking, flying snakes don’t actually fly, because they don’t gain altitude during their ventures. However, in the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, they are known to glide dozens of feet from tree to tree, and they do it with purpose.
In an effort to figure out the mechanics behind their so-called flying, scientists from Virginia Tech university carried out indoor experiments with live snakes, as well as developing a computational model.
Hear flying snake expert Jake Socha discuss the animals below:
Speaking about the study to CNN, lead author Isaac Yeaton said:
As soon as you watch it you’re like, ‘how does it do that?’ We have a visceral response to snakes. Then the idea that this animal can then fly is very unsettling to people.
All snakes undulate as they slither across the ground, but flying snakes also do it in the air. One hypothesis for why this happens was that undulating was a base motor pattern that was built into snakes over millions of years, but the study revealed that the movement actually assisted snakes during their ‘flight’.
Using high-speed cameras, the team filmed snakes gliding from a tower to a simulated tree. The footage was used to create 3D models of the snakes in flight from every angle, allowing the team to identify two main actions made by the snake during the flight.
As well as undulating, the team noted that flying snakes change the shapes of their bodies to become somewhat triangular, creating a flat portion which acts like a wing or parachute.
In the journal Nature, the scientists explained that by combining the changing body shape with the undulation,s the snake is able to remain on the same plain when gliding, allowing it to fly to a specific point in a tree.
Yeaton told the New York Times, ‘Other animals undulate for propulsion. We show that flying snakes undulate for stability.’
National Geographic explains that scientists still don’t know exactly why flying snakes fly, but it’s likely their adventures are prompted by efforts to escape predators, to move between trees without going to the forest floor, or to hunt prey.
There are five recognised species of flying snake, found from western India to the Indonesian archipelago, and they can grow up to four feet in length.
While the snakes’ efforts to glide through the air are certainly impressive, I think the scientists might be alone in their desires to be in close proximity to the airborne animals.
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