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A flying snake flattens out into a weird flying-saucer shape in order to get some extra airtime, new research suggests.
The findings, published Wednesday in The Journal of Experimental Biology, show that the Southeast Asian snake's flattened, UFO-like cross-section gives it the right aerodynamic properties for gliding.
"The shape is unusual," said study co-author Jake Socha, a biomechanics researcher at Virginia Tech. "You never find this kind of shape in any other animal flier; you don't find it in engineered fliers. We didn't know if that was a good shape to have." [See Images of the Flying Snake]
The weird flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisi, curls its tail around a tree branch more than 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground before launching upward, curling its body and gliding to the next tree limb.
Although birds, and even humans using glider wings, are much better at their airborne maneuvers, the snake's performance compares favorably to that of other gliding animals, such as flying squirrels, lizards and even ants, Socha said.
Researchers already knew that the snakes curved around, splayed out their ribs to flatten their bodies and undulated as they were airborne — but they didn't know why.
To address that question, the team created physical models of the cross-section and tested them in a water tunnel. It turned out that the flying saucer was a surprisingly good shape to take — much better than the snake's usual cylindrical shape.