Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 3    May, 2011

Pentagon Wants Secret of Flying Snakes
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Condensed by Native Village

Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a snake???    Yes! 

A genus of tree-dwelling snakes called Chrysopelea can launch themselves into the air and glide long distances without wings.  Now the Defense Department wants to know how. They are funding research by Virginia Tech biologist John Socha who has studied and filmed the snakes in Asia.

"Of any terrestrial animal glider, snakes exhibit the greatest active movements, which may affect their trajectory dynamics,"  Socha and his researchers wrote. "We launched 'flying' snakes from a 15-meter tower and recorded the mid-to-end portion of trajectories with four video cameras to reconstruct the snakes' body position."

In the videos, the reptiles are seen undulating side to side in a slithering aerodynamic system.

"The snake is very active in the air, and you can kind of envision it as having multiple segments that become multiple wings," Socha said. "The leading edge becomes the trailer, and then the trailer becomes the leading edge."

As the snakes travel from tree to tree or directly to the ground, they somehow twist and flatten their bodies into an S-shape. Socha suggests this helps them stay aloft before they land nearly 800 feet away.

"Basically ... they become one long wing," he said.

Among the snakes' mysteries is how the reptiles are able to turn while in the air. The snakes begin their flight by leaping off the trees, dropping to gain speed and then undulating their bodies to keep them flying.

Should we expect slithering, snake-like military aircraft in the near future? Socha said the Defense Department is more "interested in it from a basic science view, with potential applications a secondary consideration."

He is not concerned with any potential military. "This is amazingly interesting and curious, and it's not at all clear how it works or how it could have evolved," Socha said.  "I'm just trying to answer these basic questions."

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