Flying snakes become UFO-shaped for more lift

flying snake

Flying snake becomes more aerodynamic than initially thought when morphing its body into a triangular shape, like a UFO; photo by Dr. Jake Socha

The paradise tree snake, a.k.a. the paradise flying snake—yes, there are “flying” snakes—can glide up to 100 feet away from a tree by turning its body into a shape resembling a UFO.

Researchers have known for years that the snake flattens its body and makes an S shape as it glides on air, but now, for the first time, they can definitively say how it generates the lift required to stay airborne after they duplicated the aerodynamic characteristics in a laboratory at Virginia Tech.

Results of the study were published Wednesday in The Journal of Experimental Biology, along with video of the research. Here's an explanation:

"Our expectations going in were that it would not be very good because it does not look like a classically streamlined, airplane-type cross-sectional shape," Dr. Jake Socha told Reuters. "What we got were some surprising aerodynamic characteristics. In fact, it was much better than we anticipated."

flying snake

Duplicated cross-section of a flying snake takes on the shape of a flying saucer; diagram generated by screen grabs from video

When gliding in the air, the snake, found in the rain forests of Asia, morphs its circular cross-section into a triangular shape by splaying its ribs and flattening its body, the study said. The cross-section shape (shown in the diagram at right) looks like a flying saucer.

Using a 3D printer, the researchers duplicated the triangular body of a snake in "flight" (they don’t actually fly like birds but glide) and measured the forces (or lift) that the snake's shape creates by testing it in a water tunnel with a laser tracking flow patterns around the model.

"This one [discovery] is pretty neat because we're finally starting to be able to explain physically how it glides, not just what it's doing when it glides," Socha told GrindTV Outdoor in an email.

Socha called it a "pretty big" breakthrough in their research.

"It tells us that the snake's body shape has a big effect on its gliding performance," he said. "This only solves part of it. We still need to understand the effect of the snake's undulation (its movement) and its 3D curved shape of the whole body."

And so, the research continues.

flying snake

A flying tree snake as it appears on a limb; photo by Dr. Jake Socha

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