Magazine article Science News

When Snakes Fly

Magazine article Science News

When Snakes Fly

Article excerpt

A snake jumping out a window has at least a little bit in common with a paper airplane.

Few snakes do anything but fall, but the paradise tree snake widens and flattens its body as if trying to catch some lift. And instead of holding a straight Superman pose, it undulates and whips S-curves in the air in a 3-D motion that researchers don't have a word for. "Just watch the video," says biomechanist Jake Socha of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Launching from a 10-meter height, Chrysopelea paradisi snakes regularly glide outward 10 meters, and Socha has witnessed a champion glide of 21 meters. The snake is an accomplished aerialist among the five Chrysopelea species of flying snakes, all from South and Southeast Asia.

The paradise glider lives in trees, climbing in easy slithers and jumping offbranches to escape both predators and scientists. It really does jump, Socha says. The snake anchors its tall on a branch, and the front of the body first drops down and then shoots back up and out headfirst. It has some power to aim its glides, and Socha suspects it has unusually good vision for a snake. He has seen gliders he was studying snap heads-up alert and follow the motion of an airplane across the sky.

Yet a resting paradise glider looped over a branch "just looks like a normal snake," he says. "That's part of the fascination."

Most of the time the paradise tree snake is as sausage-round as any other snake. But during a glide, the flyer splays out its ribs and sucks in its belly. …

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