Danger from above: Snakes can glide like an airplane. What's more, they can change direction mid-air and sail the length of a tennis court.
The snakes we're talking about are a South and Southeast Asian variety called paradise tree snakes. The snakes are part of a larger genus of airborne serpents called Chrysopelea. They live in a jungle habitat, gliding from tree to tree and can grow to be four feet long. Though they're poisonous, their venom is not harmful to humans.
Jake Socha, a biologist from Virginia Tech, studied the snakes' flying behavior, launching them from a 50-foot tower. The researchers discovered that as a snake falls, it flattens its belly, turning itself into a long wing.
They saw that the snakes angles their bodies 25 to 30 degrees relative to the wind in order to generate lift. This is the same as holding your hand out of a car window at a small angle to have the wind lift it up.
"The snake creates lift using a combination of its flattened cross-sectional shape and the angle that it takes to the oncoming airflow, known as the angle of attack," Socha said to Discovery News.
The flying reptiles also continued their slithering motion during flight, gliding in an 'S' shape. The researchers theorized that the shape might allow the front of the snake to create a wake for its rear, streamlining flight in the same way the 'V' formation aids geese aloft.
Researchers also noticed that the snakes somehow steer themselves and change direction during their flights. The furthest a snake glided during the tests was 79 feet - about the distance of a tennis court, or one fourth of the way down a football field.
The researchers also conducted aerodynamic tests on plastic snakes dipped in a water tunnel and ultimately came up with a mathematical formula to describe the snakes' gliding behavior. The project was funded by the Pentagon and the results might be used to develop something like a flying snake robot used in search-and-rescue missions.
The paper, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, could also help scientists understand more about other creatures that glide. The research was also presented at the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting this November.