Ophidiophobics beware: flying snakes have great aerodynamics

Thu Jan 30, 2014 5:38pm EST
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This may be the last thing that anyone with a touch of ophidiophobia - fear of snakes - would want to hear: flying snakes have surprisingly good aerodynamic qualities.

Scientists studying the amazing gliding proficiency of an Asian species known as the paradise tree snake say it does two things as it goes airborne. It splays its ribs in order to flatten its profile from round into a more triangular form, and it undulates while airborne - sort of swimming through the air.

Researchers led by Jake Socha, an expert in biomechanics at Virginia Tech, replicated in a plastic model the shape the snake assumes while airborne, and tested it to evaluate its aerodynamic qualities.

They placed the snake model in a water tunnel and used a laser to track flow patterns around the model.

"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," Socha said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"What we got were some surprising aerodynamic characteristics. In fact, it was much better than we anticipated," Socha added.

The paradise tree snake is one of the world's five species of flying snakes, all from the genus Chrysopelea. To be precise, they are gliders, not actual flyers like birds and bats that achieve powered flight.

The mildly venomous snake - green and black with occasional touches of red and orange - has a diameter roughly equal to a human finger and is up to three feet (one meter) long. It lives in rain forests in Southeast Asia and South Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.   Continued...

A paradise tree snake is shown in this undated handout photo courtesy of Jake Socha, Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. REUTERS/Jake Socha/Virginia Tech/Handout via Reuters