Flying Snakes Take On UFO Shape To Glide From Trees To The Rainforest Floor [VIDEO]
Flying snakes in the rain forests of Southeast Asia are able to soar up to 100 feet through the air, and now scientists have figured out why these terrifying creatures are such good gliders. In a study published yesterday in The Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers found that the flying snake flattens itself into a UFO-like shape as it glides, causing the creature to float through the air sort of like a frisbee. (Why someone would study flying snakes, rather than try as hard as humanly possible to pretend they don't exist, is another question entirely.)
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"The shape is unusual," said Jake Socha, a biomechanics researcher at Virginia Tech and coauthor of the study. "You never find this kind of shape in any other animal flyer; you don't find it in engineered flyers. We didn't know if that was a good shape to have."
Socha and his team studied the paradise flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisi, one of five species of flying snake found from India to Indonesia and the best flyer of the bunch. After Chrysopelea paradisi leaps off a tree branch, the flying snake rotates its ribs towards its head, which flattens its body. This doubles the flying snake's width while flattening its body. The cross-section of a snake is normally round, but when the flying snake flattens its body, it takes on a cross-section that looks like a B-movie UFO, as illustrated below.
For the study, the researchers created a 3D-printed rod modeled after the shape of the flying snake in flight. Rather than just tossing the rod from a tree, the researchers placed the rod in a water tank to recreate air conditions, tilting it at different angles and in changing water flows. At most angles, the 3D rod showed favorable lift for gliding. The researchers said that actual flying snakes perform even better than their 3D model.
Scientists may now know the technique that flying snakes use to move through the air, but they aren't so sure about why they do it in the first place. "No one really knows," writes Socha on his personal website. "In general, animals that glide do so for one of the following reasons: efficient vertical travel (it takes less energy to glide to a tree next to yours than to climb down than climb up the target tree), quick vertical travel (same argument), to chase prey, or to escape a predator. From anecdotal evidence, it appears that flying snakes use flight to travel easily from tree to tree. But it may be some combination of the above--the snakes I've worked with perform the best when they're trying to get away from me."
If you're traveling to Southeast Asia and you're worried that a nest of snakes is going to descend upon your head, Socha has some reassuring words: "I've never heard of this happening. There's no need to worry about snakes falling out of the skies, even if you live in Southeast Asia." And the snakes are only venomous to the extent that they can kill small prey like lizards and frogs, so don't worry--flying snakes aren't enormously terrifying, just mildly terrifying.
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