The Secrets of Flying Snakes

Jake Socha/Virginia Tech

ScienceShot: The Secrets of Flying Snakes

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

The paradise tree snake puts flying squirrels—and even aircraft—to shame. The 1.2-meter-long reptile, an adept climber that lives in forests, parks, and gardens of southeastern Asia, can glide up to 10 meters from tree branch to tree branch, adjust its flight path in midair, and fly with its body positioned at angles that would make typical airplanes stall. Now, scientists know how. Utilizing the same sort of computer simulations engineers use to assess the airflow around aircraft, researchers have analyzed the profile of a paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi, pictured) in midair. When the reptile slithers from a branch, it warps its tube-shaped body into a flattened, D-shaped cross section. That expanded profile doesn’t simply create air resistance to slow the snake’s fall; it generates lift as the animal undulates through the air. Even when airflow strikes the flattened part of snake’s D-shaped profile at angles of 30° and beyond—far above those at which typical aircraft wings stall—swirling vortices of air remain attached to the upper surface of the snake’s body and create low pressure (and therefore generate lift), the team reports today in Physics of Fluids. Results of the first-of-its-kind analysis could be used to help engineers design shape-shifting aerial vehicles or blades for wind turbines.

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Posted in Physics, Plants & Animals