February 5, 2014
Flying Snakes & UFOs More Alike Than You Think
First off, is there a snake that flies? Yes, there is a snake that can actually position itself to leap from a branch and fly through the air. This reptile is called the flying snake and it can glide through the air without the help of wings. It is found in Southeast Asia, India and southern China.
This flying feat is accomplished by hanging down from a branch, positioning its body into a J-shape and launching itself. While in the air, the snake will suck in its stomach, flatten its body, flair out its ribs to act like wings and move in a slithering motion. This generates a gliding effect and the snake can go great distances in the air, up to 300 feet or more.
“The shape is unusual. You never find this kind of shape in any other animal flyer; you don’t find it in engineered flyers. We didn’t know if that was a good shape to have,” said Jake Socha, co-author of the study and biomechanics researcher at Virginia Tech.
The researchers added that, “When gliding, the flying snake, Chrysopelea paradise, morphs its circular cross-section into a triangular shape by splaying its ribs and flattening its body in the dorsoventral axis,” according to CBS News.
This motion allows it to stay airborne for long distances. “It looks like someone’s version of a UFO,” Socha added.
To determine this action, researchers used a 3D-printed rod in the same UFO shape as the snake. They placed the rod in a tank filled with water, and studied how the water flowed. This determined the drag and lift. Microscopic beads were added, and a spinning vortex was visible below the UFO shape. This proves how the snake can maintain flight.
“When the team tilted the model at 35 degrees, there was a massive spike in the lift generated by water flowing at higher speeds. More surprisingly, when the model was held level with the flow, instead of generating upward lift, the fluid pushed the rod down,” explained Kathryn Knight from the journal.
“If you make a rough estimate of the lift to drag ratio for the real animal, it appears to do better than what we got from this study. So even though this shape produced more lift than we were expecting, it doesn’t get us the glide performance that snakes can attain, giving us a hint that there is something in what the animal is doing aerodynamically that is not captured by the cross-sectional shape alone,” Socha said.
Image Credit: Lee Yiu Tung / Shutterstock