New Snake Footage Uncoils Mystery of Flying Serpents

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 7, 2002

Snakes Photo Essay: Go >>

Watch out—there's a snake flying through the air!

No, it's not a paranoid hallucination. Along the west coast of India and in parts of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, some snakes slither through the jungle, bite with venom, and glide from tree to tree.

"How does a long cylinder with no appendages move through the air?" asked Jake Socha, a biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. "How is it able to turn? Why doesn't it tumble over in the air?"

To help answer these questions, Socha created a three-dimensional reconstruction of the snakes' flight using digital video cameras and computer software normally used to analyze aerial and satellite photos.

Reporting his preliminary findings in the August 8 issue of Nature, Socha said his research shows that the snakes flatten and undulate their bodies to glide through the air. Undulation is key to their ability to stay aloft, he said.

"The undulation is not akin to a flapping wing," Socha explained. "It's more like putting a whip on a large table and then moving the whip from side to side, with waves moving down the whip."

Michael LaBarbera, Socha's Ph.D. thesis adviser at the University of Chicago, praised Socha's work. "No other study on any other gliding animal has reconstructed the flight in this detail," he said, adding: "Jake has set a new standard of excellence for other workers in animal aerodynamics."

Efficiency Trait?

There are five species of flying snakes, all of the genus Chrysopelea. Adults average about three feet (one meter) long, and though not lethal, some have a pretty testy temperament, said Socha.

"They do have small fangs in the back of their mouth and inject a small amount of venom when they eat, but they're harmless to humans," he said. "I've been bitten many times with no effect."

Continued on Next Page >>


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