The secrets of the flying paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) have recently been revealed by a new study. According to the new findings, the snake flattens its cylindrical body and adopts a novel flying-saucer shape to improve it movement through the air. Published in the Jan. 29 issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology, the research group has established that the paradise tree snake’s unusual cross-sectional shape, while in flight, provides it with an aerodynamic advantage that improves its ability to glide.
Flying paradise snakes can flick their tails around tree branches that are more than 50 feet above the ground, prior to springing upwards. The snakes contort their midsections into a relatively triangular shape that allows them to hurl their curled bodies outward and glide from tree to tree, soaring distances of up to 100 feet; this process is facilitated by the creature performing sinuous movements. The paradise tree snake is primarily found in southeastern Asia, occupying a diverse array of habitats, from mangrove swamps and rainforests to gardens and parks. The serpents are typically active during the day and are particularly adept climbers, favoring the tops of coconut palms. The snakes have particularly long tails and slender bodies and display yellow scales with dark outlines.
Researchers were already aware that the snakes could climb trees by exploiting the ridges on their belly scales; this provides the grip necessary to gradually migrate up the tree. However, when sailing through the air, the snake undulates from side to side by flexing its ribs. Jake Socha, a biochemist working at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, recently explained that the snake’s ability to transform its body and assume an S-shape creates an aerodynamic surface that helps them glide at speeds of around 30 feet per second.
Scientists are uncertain as to exactly why the flying snakes glide through the air. However, many have conjectured Chrysopelea paradisi use this remarkable faculty to escape predation, without having to traverse the dangerous forest floor. It is also likely the serpents hunt unsuspecting prey, performing surprise attacks by launching from the overlying canopy. However, the snakes only possess weak venom and do not represent a significant danger to humans.
Socha’s research team developed a 3-dimensional model – manufactured using a 3D printer – that mimicked the paradise tree snake’s in-flight shape. This model was positioned in a tank that contained flowing water, allowing the researchers to visualize how air would flow around the model. Simulating the snake’s flight through air, the group investigated the aerodynamics of the model by subjecting it to water flows at varying speeds and tilted the make-shift snake, at a broad range of angles, to determine how the current flowed over its surface. Socha and colleagues concluded that the snake was surprisingly aerodynamic and generated forces that enabled it to achieve maximum lift, while flying through the air.
Speaking to LiveScience, Socha recently explained that the snake has solved an “engineering problem” that they did not even realize existed. However, the researchers are still unaware of how the repeated undulations of the flying paradise tree snakes aids their flight – something the group plan to study in the future. By James Fenner