Jake Socha is an expert on flying snakes who uses detailed scientific terminology such as “this big, wiggly, ribbon thing” to describe his soaring quarry.
It is an apt description, but don’t be fooled. When a snake launches off a tree in its Southeast Asian habitat and lands on another tree dozens of feet away, there is nothing random about those wiggles.
A professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech, Dr. Socha and his colleagues published a study on Monday in Nature Physics supporting the hypothesis that the midair undulations (the wiggles) are actually carefully coordinated and highly functional processes that enhance the dynamic stability of the snake in flight.
Flying is a bit of a misnomer for what the snakes do. The slithering airborne creatures tend to fall strategically or glide, meaning they do not gain altitude like a bird or an insect. Their flights generally last only a couple of seconds, at a speed of around 25 miles per hour, and they land without injury. To the untrained eye, it might look as if the snake just fell out of a tree by accident, wiggling frantically as it plummets to earth. Not so.
Once it goes airborne — after inching out on a tree limb and pushing off the branch — the snake moves its ribs and muscles to extend the width of its underside, transforming its body into a structure that redirects airflow like a parachute or a wing. A cross section of the snake’s body midair would show that its normal circular shape becomes triangular and the whole body undulates as it glides toward its target.