Scientists Figure Out The Gliding Mechanism Of ‘Flying Snakes’

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Scientists have used 3D modelling to understand the mechanism behind the limbless tree snakes’ ability to glide through the air.

Paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), is a species found in Southeast Asia that can fly from one branch to another and even glide all the way to the ground from treetops. In a new study, researchers have created a continuous and anatomically-accurate 3D mathematical model of Chrysopelea paradisi in flight.

With the 3D model, researchers wanted to understand the biomechanics of snake flight and role of aerial undulation. Undulation is the smooth wave-like movement that snakes use to traverse everywhere. Considering how snakes do not have limbs researchers thought that snakes use undulation to traverse in the air as well.

One of the researchers, Prof Jake Socha, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech, describes undulation as a basic program in snakes in a statement. Socha explains, “By program, I mean their neural, muscular program⁠ — they’re receiving specific instructions: fire this muscle now, fire that muscle, fire this muscle. It’s ancient. It goes beyond snakes. That pattern of creating undulations is an old one. It’s quite possible that a snake gets into the air, then it goes, ‘What do I do? I’m a snake. I undulate.’”

And well, researchers were correct.

Researchers developed the 3D model based on observations consisting of more than 100 snake gliding in the air, and collected data on the frequency and direction of undulating waves, forces acting on the body, and mass distribution.

In a set of experiment, researchers turned off the 3D-modelled snake’s ability to undulate in the air to simulate a scenario where it would glide without undulation. After multiple simulations, researchers found that the virtual snake couldn’t maintain its stability when it didn’t have the ability to undulate in the air.

Prof Shane Ross, from Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech, posted a tweet showing the simulations of “Undulating flying snake vs a ‘frozen’ snake”.

Cover photo: Jake Socha

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