Meet the flying snakes

Paradise flying snake. Photo by Dawn Pedersen. Retrieved from Flickr on 02-09-2023.

I’ve mentioned before how I tend to gravitate toward mammals and birds. But lately, I’ve been wanting to talk about a reptile.

More specifically, I’ve been feeling like it’s snake time.

But you know how I love birds, so I decided to talk about another creature that can fly: flying snakes.

And no, I’m not talking about snakes on a plane.

There are five species of flying snakes (genus: Chrysopelea), all of which live in Southeast Asia. They range in size from two feet long (the twin-barred tree snake) to four feet long (the golden tree snake). As you might expect given their name, flying snakes can fly (or, more accurately, glide) through the air; they can glide from treetop to treetop in the forest as far as 300 feet.

Not dangerous to humans

You don’t have to worry about flying tree snakes attacking you from the air! Firstly, they rarely come down from their homes in the trees.

Secondly, although flying tree snakes are venomous, they don’t have enough venom to harm a human significantly. Flying snake bites typically just result in pain at the site of the bite. It’s not fun, but it won’t kill you. (Note: this assumes you are a human. Flying snake venom will kill small animals like lizards and bats).

Finally, it’s really hard for flying snakes to even get a good dose of venom in you! They are rear-fanged. Unlike cobras or rattlesnakes (which are front-fanged), flying tree snakes have fangs in the rear of their mouth. This means they can’t inject their venom into you; instead, they have to chew on your flesh to deliver any substantial amount of venom.

Moral of the story: don’t let a flying tree snake bite you multiple times, and you’ll be just fine.

Ornate flying snake. Photo by Davidvraju. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 02-09-2023.

Why flight

Besides simply being cool, flying snakes are special because they fly. They are the only known limbless vertebrates that can glide through the air. In fact, they are technically better at gliding than a more familiar mammalian glider, the flying squirrel.

Why do they fly? Honestly, we’re not sure – we have limited knowledge about their behavior in the wild, so we don’t know how often or why flying snakes take to the air.

Still, scientists have some ideas. Flying snakes could use their aerobatics to escape predators or to move from tree to tree to avoid going to the forest floor. They could even be using flight to hunt their prey (i.e., small mammals, frogs, lizards, and birds).

Falling with style

Technically, flying snakes don’t fly – they can’t gain altitude unless there’s a solid updraft to lift them in the air. Instead, flying snakes are really gliders.

How does this gliding work? A flying snake first dangles itself at the end of a branch in a J-shape. It then uses the lower half of its body to propel itself from the branch. Once in the air, the snake forms an S-shape and flattens its body to twice its normal width. This flattening gives the snake’s body a concave C-shape, which can trap air.

The easiest thing to see when flying snakes are gliding are their undulations back and forth; it looks like they are slithering in the air. These undulations help the snake stay stable in the air. Flying snakes can even shift their body to steer through a forest canopy. You can watch a flying snake here.

The size of a flying snake controls how far it can glide. Size and flight length are negatively correlated, so a smaller snake can glide longer distances.

Why do people care so much about how flying snakes fly? Besides being cool to study and understand, scientists hope they can use the flying snake to create better gliding snake robots.



National Geographic


National Wildlife Federation

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