Little was known about how these snakes “fly” before a team of Virginia Tech scientists published a new research article on Monday.
Experts say snakes glide through the air, and study lead author Isaac Yeaton told CNN the team set out to understand how they do it.
The snakes make a rippling motion as they move through the air, and the researchers were curious to know why they did so.
The team had a basic understanding of rippling thanks to the work of study author Jake Socha, who has been studying snakes for about 20 years, Yeaton said.
All snakes undulate when they move across the ground, but flying snakes do so in midair as well.
“It is not strictly necessary to undulate to fall, so that leads to the question ‘well then why are they undulating?'” Yeaton said.
One hypothesis was that it was a base motor pattern for snakes built in millions of years, but Yeaton said they now understand that the ripple stabilizes sliding and prevents the snake from falling, as well as allowing them to cover more horizontal distance.
The researchers conducted indoor experiments with live snakes at Virginia Tech and also developed a computational model. “It is a big step forward,” said Yeaton.
The next stage for researchers is to watch snakes leap off trees, or glide, outdoors, Yeaton said, as well as investigate how they generate lift and how they spin in midair.
He told CNN that snakes are “question-generating organisms” and that there are many more mysteries to solve.
“As soon as you see it, you think ‘how does it do that?'” Yeaton said, adding that this may be the reason why so many people are afraid of reptiles.
“We have a visceral response to snakes,” he said. “So the idea that this animal can fly is very disturbing to people.”
The full investigation was published in the journal Nature Physics.