Talk about bad press. No animals on the planet get as bad a rap as snakes. From the Biblical serpent to the trials and ordeals of Harry Potter, snakes are depicted as devils or monsters, so it's little wonder that many people break out in a cold sweat at just the thought of encountering one of these slithering reptiles.
So now comes biologist Jake Socha with news that may not bring comfort to the faint of heart. Some snakes can fly.
For eight years Socha has been studying snakes found in Southeast Asia that can leap from a branch high in a tree, and even make right-angle turns as they glide toward the ground or head for a tasty lizard in another tree.
He has chased them down in Singapore and Thailand, and he has been bitten more times than he can recall, so he knows firsthand that they aren't deadly. But the fact that they can fly, or more accurately glide, has captured his imagination.
His most recent research shows that the smaller of five species of flying snakes is the most proficient flier, and the snakes maintain aerodynamic control by flattening their entire bodies and undulating as they glide through the air.
Socha, who admits he was known as "Jake the Snake" in high school, became "Jake the Flying Snake" in grad school almost by accident. He didn't set out to study flying snakes, but soon after arriving at the University of Chicago to work on his doctorate in biology he was told to get with the program. Or in layman's terms, get some kind of grant to pay for his research.
"I didn't know what I wanted to work on," he says. But he remembered a professor who had told him about flying snakes, and how little was known about them, so he decided to "write up this grant on snakes and then move on to something more serious."
But the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration bought the idea, and Socha soon found himself heading for the jungles of Southeast Asia.
His work was hampered by the fact that there wasn't much information available, although scientists have known about flying snakes for more than a century. That's kind of amazing because, as Socha points out, snakes seem like very unlikely candidates for airborne maneuvers.
The body of a snake is basically a cylinder, which posed the first question.
"That is the least likely shape to be able to fly," says Socha, who is now a biologist with Argonne National Laboratory. So how do the snakes do it?
Socha's goal was to capture video images of the snakes, while in flight, and then use computers to help figure out the details. He got his first look at a flying snake while visiting a park in Singapore.
He was on an observation tower, primarily used by bird watchers, when he saw his first flying snake in the wild.
"This is a low forest, so we were up above the top of the trees, and there was a snake up there chasing geckos around," Socha says. But as he moved toward the snake it lost interest in the lizard "and he just took a dive off the tower and glided into the trees."