Flying Snakes Glide Through the Air Like Mini-Tornadoes

Researchers are getting closer to understanding the physics behind this impressive reptilian feat

Photo: Jake Socha

Flying snakes have been the victim of many a Snakes on a Plane joke, but these animals—which are gliding, not flying—are the subjects of serious scientific investigation. The snakes, which live in Southeast and South Asia, are known for their ability to glide from tree to tree, sometimes covering distances up to ten times their body length, the Washington Post explains. For decades, researchers have been trying to figure out just how the reptiles achieve this feat.

Now, they've come a step closer to understanding how the animals manage this jump without any kind of wing or webbing. As it turns out, flying snakes use some of the same thermodynamics as a tornado, generating a region of low pressure just above their spines that acts to suck them upwards, the Post describes. Computer models of air flow patterns generated by the snakes' gyrating bodies, along with a 3-D printed snake, helped the researchers draw out a rough map of how the snakes move mid-air.

The Post

The glide starts with a small jump, after which the snake extends itself out to full-body length. It gains speed as it sharply drops; then mid-flight, its ribs splay apart and cause the normally circular body to flatten. It makes an S-shape and starts to undulate. Eventually, the flight path becomes more horizontal as it glides forward.

[Flying snake expert Jake] Socha has found that serpents tend to maintain angles of attack of about 20 to 40 degrees. Also, some portions of the snake’s body are perpendicular to the trajectory they are moving in, so they become like little sections of a wing. They hit the wind sideways, allowing for more lift.

The snakes still have their secrets, however. Unlike other gliding animals, the researchers told the Post, the snakes tend to rhythmically writhe while flying through the air. The team still has no idea what contribution this movement might make to their flight patterns. 

You can check out the snakes' moves in this video: 

[VIDEO] Flying Snakes - The Physics Of Snakes That Fly

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