Mystery of flying snakes may be resolved

Scientists observed snakes "slithering" through the air to stay aloft

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The Independent Online

Scientists may have unravelled the mystery of how some serpents can fly, after snakes were observed “slithering” through the air in an Asian rainforest.

The findings published on Wednesday show that by adopting an S-shape, they were able to glide almost 100 feet in the air from tall trees.

Study leader Dr Jake Socha, from Virginia Tech Wake Forest University said the snakes turn their whole body into one aerodynamic surface.

"They look like they are swimming," he added.

Dr Socha's team discovered that flying snakes flex their ribs to stretch and flatten out their bodies. Looked at in cross section, they turn from a circle to an arched semi-circle.

"It looks like someone's version of a UFO," Dr Socha added.

The team closely examined the cross-sectional shape and produced a rod with the same profile as a gliding snake's body using a 3-D printer. They then placed it in a tank of flowing water.

Although water is much more dense than air, the experiment recreated the effect of air flowing over a snake's body.

At most angles, the unusual body shape generated sufficient lift to keep the creature aloft.

However, Dr Socha cautioned that the results published do not fully account for the their ability to 'fly', as snakes appear to do better than the results garnered from the study.

"If you make a rough estimate of the lift to drag ratio for the real animal, it appears to do better than what we got from this study," said Dr Socha.

"So even though this shape produced more lift than we were expecting, it doesn't get us the glide performance that snakes can attain, giving us a hint that there is something in what the animal is doing aerodynamically that is not captured by the cross-sectional shape alone."

The study is published in The Journal of Experimental Biology

Additional reporting by Press Association