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Flying snakes slither through the air

Fancy moves propel Singapore serpent's acrobatics

A snake flies through the air just after takeoff, beginning to form the 'S' posture it takes to control its path.
A snake flies through the air just after takeoff, beginning to form the 'S' posture it takes to control its path.  

By Ann Kellan
CNN Science Correspondent

(CNN) -- Boldly going where no serpent has gone before, Singapore's paradise tree snakes take to the air in graceful flights of fancy achieved without resort to such aids as wings or even the wing-like flaps relied on by flying squirrels.

The amazing body movements that propel the snakes -- Chrysopelea paradisi -- drew the attention of University of Chicago researcher Jake Socha, who spent the past six years studying the twists and turns that set the creatures apart from the ordinary snakes in the grass.

"This (tree) snake's glide matches a flying squirrels'," Socha said.

They "fly" to move between trees, chase aerial prey, and avoid predators. And they are good at it: The snake's glide ratio -- the ratio of horizontal distance gained to height lost -- is comparable not only to flying squirrels, but also to flying lizards and flying frogs, all animals with bodies better designed for flight.

Because so little was known about tree snakes, Socha spent most of his research time analyzing the snake's biomechanics seeking to know how the snake's movements allow it to be airborne and glide.

An airborne snake study

He analyzed two snake species and 50 snakes. To capture their movements in the air, he built a three-story scaffolding with a branch sticking out of the side, to simulate a tree. After resting the snake on the branch he would wait.

Flying snakes make a leap from trees to shrubs. (August 8)

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"Occasionally, when the snake wouldn't move, I'd give it a prod", Socha says, "and sit there and wait and hope it would jump off." Socha says none of the reptiles got hurt during these flying exercises, done at the Singapore Zoological Gardens.

When the snakes decided to jump, cameras were rolling. Socha positioned two video cameras to focus down on the snake. Using computer software, he combined both camera views to create a 3-D effect.

It's the same technique used to create 3-D maps, and by biomechanics specialists to analyze a golf swing or how well a baseball player swings a bat. Tony O'Dempsey of ESRI, an aerial mapping and analysis company, helped Socha videotape the flights.

A third camera captured various angles as the tree snake made its move to the ground.

Treetop biomechanics

Put together, the cameras revealed every detail of the creatures' graceful and accurate flights.

A three-story scaffolding and a branch were used to measure the snakes' jumps.
A three-story scaffolding and a branch were used to measure the snakes' jumps.  

He found that the tree snake starts in a "J" position, hugging the branch with the rear half of its body. When it springs into action it straightens out, releases its grip on the branch and becomes airborne. Its ribs move up the snake's body and rotate, which flattens the snake as it starts to fall with its head aimed toward the ground.

The snake then coils up into a wide "S" shape and begins moving from side to side and from front to back at the same time, making it look "like an eel sending waves up and down its body," Socha said. With this movement, the snake can control its path in mid-air, he said.

The movement also might contribute to the final portion of the snakes' flight, in which it makes a deliberate glide toward the ground, allowing it to come in for a smooth landing. The glides Socha studies lasted about two seconds each.

Socha can't say for sure which of the body movements contributes most to the "long" glide. But he said the tree snakes are surprisingly adept at aerial maneuvers, even though they have no appendages to assist them in their acrobatics.

He plans to another study to find out more.

"Two seconds aren't a lot but the tests were done from 10 meters up. I'm sure tree snakes glide a lot longer in higher tree branches," he said.

Socha, a former schoolteacher, is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago. His findings were published in the journal Nature.


• Flying Snakes
• Nature

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