Video Reveals How a Flying Snake Slithers Through the Air

By Jennifer Welsh | November 23, 2010 1:20 pm

gliding-snakeThey may not be as adorable as sugar gliders, but they’re just as accomplished: Five species of Asian snake have also developed the ability to “fly” or glide from tree to tree, flattening out their bodies to travel up to 80 feet.

Researcher Jake Socha and his team studied the glide of Chrysopelea paradisi snake and took videos of the snakes in flight, which Socha presented at an ongoing meeting of the American Physical Society. He found that before a snake takes the leap it curls its body into a J-shape, and then launches itself from the tree branch. In the air, it flattens its body and undulates, as if slithering through the air.

The snake differs from other gliding species, like gliding lizards and flying squirrels, in that it doesn’t have specialized body parts that act as wings.

“The whole snake itself is just one long wing,” Socha said. “That wing is constantly reconfiguring, it’s constantly reforming and contorting.” [LiveScience]

Hit the jump for a video of the snake in action.

The vidoes were easy to arrange.

The snakes are more than happy to glide for the cameras, Socha said. “They glide; that’s what they do,” he said. “So they’re like, ‘I’m outta here, I’m gonna go down there.'” [LiveScience]

The snakes never reach an equilibrium state, where upward and downward forces are equal (as paper airplanes and most other gliding animals do). To the researchers’ surprise, they found that the upward aerodynamic forces on the snake are greater than the force of gravity pulling the snake down to earth. Says Socha:

“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…. But our modeling suggests that the effect is only temporary, and eventually the snake hits the ground to end the glide.” [Discovery News]

The research will be published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. The Washington Post notes that Socha has received funding from the Pentagon’s DARPA for the research, a fact that lends itself to wild and rampant speculation: Does the U.S. military want to build an army of flying robot snakes? If we find out, we’ll let you know.

Related Content:
80beats: Are Snakes Really Disappearing Around the Globe?
80beats: Slithering Snakes Reveal the Secret of Limbless Locomotion
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Argentavis, the largest flying bird, was a master glider
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Geckos use their tails to stop falls and manoeuvre in the air
The Loom: How To Be A Bat [Life in Motion]
Discoblog:How to Get Rid of Invasive Tree Snakes: Bomb Them With Parachuted, Poisonous Mice

Image: Jake Socha

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • Alex Russell

    “To the researchers’ surprise, they found that the upward aerodynamic forces on the snake are greater than the force of gravity pulling the snake down to earth.” This is interesting. I’ve been watching a bunch of videos of their flight, and in at least one of them the snake appears to slow down almost to a stop vertically while “swimming”/slithering off almost horizontally. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwDAsJCB2Pg )

    I’m not sure what the final sentence here means: “‘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…. But our modeling suggests that the effect is only temporary, and eventually the snake hits the ground to end the glide.’” Only temporary in that the snake stops the activity that makes that hypothetically upward effect? Or is there some other sort of self-terminating effect inherent in the activity, the physics of it? (Certainly birds land eventually.)

    What I’m surest it means is that a snake has not been seen energetically proceeding to actually generate an upward trajectory. I’d certainly think it likely that they do not try to in nature, that they’re conceivably always looking for downward/across fall patterns. But I’d like to know: What would happen if (somehow, in a contrived setting/situation) you tried to train one of these snakes to travel in a path that at least ends having gone upward at some point? Could you train one of these snakes to energetically try to “swim” upward, or, if you tried, what would happen?

  • http://tetrahedral.blogspot.com Steve Colyer

    I wonder if any String Theorists have seen and thought of this. Thanks very much for a great post. Food for thought on many levels, and a cool vid besides.

    Nature doesn’t lie.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @Alex, I’m no expert on snake aerodynamics or flight… but I’ll try to explain.

    So… as the snake moves through the air it is continually changing its shape and its trajectory. I think what they mean is that at SOME points during its flight the snake can produce forces (using its body and its angle of attack) that are enough to not only counteract gravity but produce a positive force upwards. But, in the end, it can’t do that forever–though it does make for really cool videos!

    If anyone out there has a better idea, feel free to chime in, I’m no physics expert!

    Thanks for reading and commenting, all!

    Jen

  • http://JewelryBabyGirl.com Ken Hodgkiss

    Restore a man to his health, his purse lies open to thee. ~Robert Burton

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »