The Weird ‘Flight’ of Tree Snakes Could Have Simply Been Defined by Physics

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Snakes could not have any limbs, but it surely would not cease them from getting round. By wiggling their our bodies to-and-fro, these artful creatures can simply sprint throughout land or water with out the necessity for toes or fins. Some may even fly.


Jake Socha is an knowledgeable on the paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), which lives in Southeast Asia and is understood to throw itself willy-nilly from the tops of tree branches to the bottom under.

Socha has been finding out these creatures for over 20 years, and whereas he admits the snakes aren’t precisely flying within the typical sense of the phrase, their strategic glides are nonetheless a powerful feat for a completely limbless animal.

When the paradise tree snake lets go of a excessive perch, its physique ripples via the air in a collection of curious contortions that may typically see it touchdown upright a number of toes away.

“We all know that snakes undulate for every kind of causes and in every kind of locomotor contexts,” says Socha, who works in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech.

“That is their basal program… It is fairly potential snake will get into the air, then it goes, ‘What do I do? I am a snake. I undulate.'”

However Socha suspects there’s extra to it than that. Making a 3D mannequin of this snake’s mid-air undulations, he and colleagues have proven these wiggles are essential for dynamic stability in flight, conserving the snakes gliding upright for longer. 

With out these aerial acrobatics, the workforce’s outcomes counsel the paradise tree snake would not get far in any respect. Actually, it might most likely plummet head-first to the bottom, or land in another odd and doubtlessly harmful orientation. 

(Usherwood, Nature Information & Views, 2020)

“What actually makes this research highly effective is that we have been in a position to dramatically advance each our understanding of glide kinematics and our skill to mannequin the system,” says mechanical engineer and lead creator of the research, Isaac Yeaton from Virgina Tech.

“Snake flight is difficult, and it is typically difficult to get the snakes to cooperate. And there are numerous intricacies to make the computational mannequin correct. However it’s satisfying to place the entire items collectively.”


The research started in 2015, when researchers reworked The Dice, a four-story black-box theatre with 23-high velocity cameras used to seize drama and dance actions, into an indoor glide enviornment. 

The celebs of the present on this case, nonetheless, have been the snakes. Putting infrared reflective tape on their our bodies at numerous places, researchers have been ready to make use of the movement seize system to document their actions from all angles.

Utilizing between 11 and 17 factors of reference from head to tail, the workforce watched as seven completely different paradise tree snakes jumped from an eight.Three-metre-high (27-foot) oak department to a man-made tree under. 

“With this quantity [of reference points], we may get a clean illustration of the snake, and an correct one,” explains Socha.

Capturing information from over 130 reside glides, the workforce constructed a steady, three-dimensionally correct illustration of the snake and its aerodynamics. 

By manipulating this dynamic mannequin, the researchers then examined how sure ripples of motion, each horizontally and vertically, affect the snake’s struggle.

When undulating, the workforce seen gliding snake’s smaller vertical wave went at twice the speed of its bigger horizontal wave – the identical frequency as a sidewinder snake, which traverses the land in a freakily related method.

This undulation, the authors clarify, is a bit like a frisbee’s spin: it retains the snake upright whereas gliding via the air, relatively than being rapidly unbalanced by the forces of drag and elevate.


For brief glides, the place simulated snakes jumped from heights of 10 metres (32 toes), almost all of the glides with undulation have been secure. Whereas solely half of them have been secure with out undulation.

Throughout longer simulated glides, ranging from 75 metres (virtually 250 toes), undulation grew to become much more vital for the snake mannequin.

The horizontal and vertical wiggles elevated each the horizontal and vertical distance of the snake’s flight; the typical horizontal distance travelled elevated by 6.9 metres or almost 23 toes.

This information would not simply inform us extra about snakes; it might be a boon for the sector of robotics, since snakes are wonderful at transferring via advanced environments – one thing we would like robots to do as properly.

“Evolution is the final word artistic tinkerer,” says one of many workforce, aerospace and ocean engineer Shane Ross. “We’re excited to proceed to find nature’s options to issues like this one, extracting flight from a wiggling cylinder.”

Jim Usherwood, who research locomotor biomechanics and was not concerned on this analysis, thinks the brand new information is helpful in that it reveals us how undulation can obtain stability. Nonetheless, he thinks there are a number of questions that stay.


“Is undulation throughout glides adopted for stabilisation? Or is it merely a behavioural remnant of snake locomotion? Most likely this can be a false dichotomy: each might be true,” he writes in a Nature Information & Views piece accompanying the brand new research.

“As ever, decoding why animals have developed sure shapes and behaviours, particularly in relation to stability, have to be handled with warning,” continues Usherwood, who works at The Royal Veterinary Faculty in London.

The research was printed in Nature Physics.




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