As unusual governmental research grants go, investigations into flying snakes seems pretty unusual; however, that's just what the US Defense Department has been doing, funding researchers at Virginia Tech looking at five species of snakes able to glide down from treetops. Using an array of cameras, biologists at the university created 3D models of chrysopelea paradisi snakes as they flattened their bodies and leapt from 15m towers.
The snakes - which live in trees in Southeast and South Asia - are in fact capable of travelling 24m from the towers. They're not just "falling with style", either; "the snake is pushed upward - even though it is moving downward - because the upward component of the aerodynamic force is greater than the snake's weight" says researcher Jake Socha.
"Hypothetically, this means that if the snake continued on like this, it would eventually be moving upward in the air" the biologist suggests, though the snakes only manage it temporarily and eventually come down to earth. It's unclear what the Defense Department hopes to gain from the research, though we can only hope for combat-ready flying attack snakes with laser beams on their heads.
[Image via The Flying Snake Homepage]
Flying snakes, caught on tape
Virginia Tech researchers analyze secrets of gliding reptiles presentation at fluid dynamics meeting today in Long Beach, Calif.
WASHINGTON, D.C., November 22, 2010 -- Five related species of tree-dwelling snakes found in Southeast and South Asia may just be the worst nightmares of ophidiophobes (people who have abnormal fears of snakes). Not only are they snakes, but they can "fly" -- flinging themselves off their perches, flattening their bodies, and gliding from tree to tree or to the ground.
To Virginia Tech biologist Jake Socha, these curious reptiles are something of a biomechanical wonder. In order to understand how they do what they do, Socha and his colleagues recently studied Chrysopelea paradisi snakes as they launched themselves off a branch at the top of a 15-meter-tall tower.
Four cameras recorded the curious snakes as they glided. This allowed them to create and analyze 3-D reconstructions of the animals' body positions during flight -- work that Socha is presenting today at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD) meeting in Long Beach, CA.
The reconstructions were coupled with an analytical model of gliding dynamics and the forces acting on the snakes' bodies. The analyses revealed that the reptiles, despite traveling up to 24 meters from the launch platform, never achieved an "equilibrium gliding" state -- one in which the forces generated by their undulating bodies exactly counteract the force pulling the animals down, causing them to move with constant velocity, at a constant angle from the horizon. Nor did the snakes simply drop to the ground.
Instead, Socha says, "the snake is pushed upward -- even though it is moving downward -- because the upward component of the aerodynamic force is greater than the snake's weight."
"Hypothetically, this means that if the snake continued on like this, it would eventually be moving upward in the air -- quite an impressive feat for a snake," he says. But our modeling suggests that the effect is only temporary, and eventually "the snake hits the ground to end the glide."
The presentation, "Gliding flight in snakes: non-equilibrium trajectory dynamics and kinematics" is at 5:06 p.m. on Monday, November 22, 2010 in the Long Beach Convention Center Room: Grand Ballroom B. ABSTRACT: http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/DFD10/Event/133681
This research is being published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. See: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-3190/
Laboratory Web site: http://www.esm.vt.edu/~jjsocha