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Weird News

Pentagon Wants Secret of Flying Snakes

Nov 24, 2010 – 3:30 PM
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Lee Speigel

Lee Speigel Contributor

(Nov. 24) -- Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a snake?

Yes, and the Defense Department wants to know how this specific genus of tree-dwelling snakes, called Chrysopelea, are able to launch themselves into the air and glide long distances without the aid of wings.

To this end, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has funded the research of Virginia Tech biologist John Socha, who has studied and filmed the snakes in Asia, The Washington Post reports.

Flying snake
Dr. Chris Sidor
Twin-barred tree snake (Chrysopelea pelias) taking to the air. This species does not glide as well as C. paradisi, but it is able to move horizontally.
In a paper just published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, Socha and his colleagues wrote, "Of any terrestrial animal glider, snakes exhibit the greatest active movements, which may affect their trajectory dynamics. 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, resulting in their own unique 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 -- which can get up to 4 feet long -- travel either 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 and land nearly 800 feet away from the tree where they started.

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

Before DARPA took over Socha's funding, he was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, which followed his trek to Asia to film the amazing flying creatures.

Among the mysteries of the flying snakes is how the reptiles are able to turn while in the air. Also, the snakes actually leap off the trees to begin their flight, dropping to gain speed and then undulating their bodies to keep them flying.

So, can we expect weird, slithering, snake-like military aircraft in the near future? Socha said DARPA was more "interested in it from a basic science view, with potential applications a secondary consideration."

And Socha says he's not concerned with any potential military use of how snakes can fly.

"This is amazingly interesting and curious, and it's not at all clear how it works or how it could have evolved," he said.

"I'm just trying to answer these basic questions."

Read more at The Washington Post and National Geographic.
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