Flying Without Wings

What does a jumbo jet, an albatross, a flying lizard and a flying squirrel have in common? Well, they can fly, and they have wings or wing-like structures to help them to do so. Therefore, wings are essential to flight, and without wings not even the jumbo jet could do so. Right?

The flying snake not only disagrees, but is able and prepared to back that up with action.

flying-snake

The flying snake (genus Chrysopelea) composes of five species, and inhabits the lowland rainforests of South and Southeast Asia. They are mildly venomous, are active in the day and live primarily on lizards, as well as birds and bats. However, it is obviously their flying – or rather, gliding – that sets them apart from the rest of the snake family.

How does it do so? A flying snake first droops itself toward the end of a branch, where the frontal part of its body forms into a ‘J’ shape.  Upon launching itself into the air from the branch, its cylindrical body flattens to about twice its normal width and acquiring a slight ‘C’ shape, which is able to trap air. While this is happening, the snake itself forms into an ‘S’, and creates consecutive S-shaped waves from head to tail as it glides through the air till it lands. Here’s how it is done in motion:

We must forgive the second video for calling the flying snake a “parachuting snake”. It is an old conception that has been debunked by recent studies showing that flying snakes, as shown above, are actually gliders which travel further horizontally than they fall vertically (whereas for parachuters, it is the exact opposite). Furthermore, they are not only superb gliders, but are also better gliders than flying squirrels and some species of flying lizards.

Much about the flying snake remains a mystery, such as the reason for their unique flying movement, and the frequency of the created S-shaped waves. Nevertheless, the wondrous flying snake is a living example of how wings are not really that essential in flight, and in its case Westlife’s “Flying Without Wings” now holds a more literal, rather than figurative, meaning.

Sources:

“Flying Snake”. National Geographic. URL: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/flying-snake.html (accessed on 7 Apr 2010)

“flying snake”, by geronimo034. geronimo034 YouTube Channel, 7 September 2007. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwDAsJCB2Pg (accessed on 8 Apr 2010)

“Flying Snakes… and Leaping Lizards”, by National Geographic. National Geographic YouTube Channel, 5 August 2009. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLbkVanjHVU (accessed on 7 Apr 2010)

Socha, J.J., 2002. Gliding flight in the paradise tree snake. Nature 418, 603-604. URL: http://www.flyingsnake.org/publications/downloads/Socha_2002a.pdf (accessed on 7 Apr 2010)

Socha, J.J., T. O’Dempsey & M. LaBarbera, 2005. A 3-D kinematic analysis of gliding in a flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisis. Journal of Experimental Biology, 208 (10): 1817-1833. URL: http://www.flyingsnake.org/publications/downloads/Socha_et_al_2005.pdf (accessed on 7 Apr 2010)

“Snakes Take Flight”, by Cynthia Wei. Journal of Experimental Biology Inside JEB piece, 15 May 2005. URL: http://www.flyingsnake.org/publications/downloads/Inside_JEB_2005.pdf (accessed on 7 Apr 2010)

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