It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Snake!

Undulation Is Key

Years later, and with tons of data, Socha has published reports in Nature and the Journal of Experimental Biology. Along the way he has picked up lots of bites from the five members of the Colubridae family of flying snakes, which are officially classified as harmless. For the record, the Chrysopelea ornata, or the golden tree snake, has the biggest teeth and the hardest bite and is the least friendly to humans. But the Chrysopelea paradisi, or the paradise tree snake, which has less of a bite and is considerably sleeker than the golden snake, turned out to be the star of the show.

The paradise tree snake is particularly graceful when it launches itself from the treetops. It hooks its tail over a branch, then forms the image of a "J" with its body as it launches itself up and outward. At first it descends rapidly, picking up the speed it needs for flight, and then it swoops outward, gliding farther than it drops, achieving true gliding flight.

The snake achieves that by flattening its body, something that is not uncommon among many species of snakes. Some do it to capture more rays from the sun, others do it to play dead.

As it glides it undulates, swinging its head from side to side and sending a wave down its body.

"It looks like it is swimming through the air," Socha says.

The snake manages to keep its body parallel to the ground and, apparently, undulation is key to its ability to control its flight. Unlike flying squirrels and other gliders, the snake doesn't just "spread its wings" and glide down to the ground.

"In essence you have a very complex dynamic motion," Socha says. That motion allows the snake to make turns, as much as 90 degrees during the early descent.

All of which brings us to the real question. Why has this family of snakes learned how to fly? What's the point?

Convenient Travel

"I don't have an answer to that," Socha says. Much more work needs to be done to figure out what's really going on here. But he has a few hunches.

The flying snakes like to dine on flying lizards, which also abound in Southeast Asia, so it's possible to picture some kind of aerial combat, with snakes zipping out of trees to nail flying lizards. But the snakes aren't all that proficient. They can't take off from the ground, and their flights are of fairly short duration.

So maybe there's another reason.

It's more likely, Socha speculates, that the snakes learned to fly so they could either escape from predators or move on quickly to a new foraging site, gliding from tree to tree in search of lizards.

"I think they use it for cheap travel," he says.

Let's hope these critters keep this to themselves. We don't really need flying rattlesnakes.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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