Flying snakes attract the attention of DARPA

File photo of the chrysopelea ornata, or ornate flying snake.

The flying snake Chrysopelea ornata has attracted the attention of DARPA. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/LA Dawson/Wikipedia)

For many people, like Indiana Jones, snakes are crawling creatures of nightmare. But what about flying snakes? Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to get up close and personal with a particular breed found in southeast Asia, India and southern China. It’s Chrysopelea ornata, or the ornate flying snake. The tree-dwelling serpent typically grows two to three feet long and can glide long distances. The Department of Defense is backing a Virginia Tech study to discover how the flying snakes accomplish this, reports the Washington Post.

Flying snakes break the fixed-wing mold

Scientists have observed that most animals with the ability to glide in air accomplish this with fixed wings or body parts that resemble wings, but these flying snakes do something entirely different. Snakes of the Chrysopelea genus undulate from side to side in what looks like a mid-air slither. This creates an aerodynamic system that allows them to move quickly from the tops of 200-foot-tall trees to areas nearly 800 feet away from the trunk of the tree. As Virginia Tech researcher John Socha puts it, “They become one long wing.”

Flying snakes can turn in the air

One aspect of Chrysopelea ornata’s flight still baffles scientists. After taking a flying leap then falling for a while to pick up speed before undulating, the flying snakes are actually able to turn in the air. At the point that this ability was discovered, Socha’s previous sponsor – the National Geographic Society – was supplanted by DARPA, an organization interested in advanced military technology. DARPA says the “physical dynamics of snake flight” are of great interest, but it has yet to reveal more about its research. It is known that the venom of the flying snakes won’t hurt a human, but it is potent enough to kill a small lizard.

The origin of the winged serpent

Scientists believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs – which were reptiles – so the concept of flying snakes may not be outlandish. In terms of human culture, flying snakes may have made an impact on the minds of ancient humanity. The flying feathered snake deity Quetzalcoatl of Aztec mythology created humankind. That’s not so evil, is it, Indiana Jones?


Washington Post

Wikipedia entry for Quetzalcoatl

Chrysopelea ornata takes flight

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