CHICAGO, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Although they are not the legendary winged serpents or dragons of mythology, they do soar from tropical treetops and glide through the air and University of Chicago biologist Jake Socha has videotaped more than 1,000 of the flying snakes in the rainforests of Singapore and Thailand.
Socha said he has documented five species of 3- to 4-foot-long snakes that exhibit the unusual behavior. Technically they are gliders, not fliers -- they do not have wings so they can only perform extended falls through the air.
One aerial species, the paradise tree snake, Chrysopela paradisi, coils its body to glide as far as 330 feet from a tall tree to the ground. Socha built a 33-foot tower at the Singapore Zoological Gardens to videotape the snakes leaping into the air across an open field.
"They're an extreme evolutionary example," he told United Press International Thursday. "It's interesting to me to see what has changed in the snake to allow them to do it."
C. paradisi prepares for takeoff by looping into a "J" shape hanging from a branch, then jumping up and away. Its flight resembles that of flying squirrels, frogs or fish that extend symmetrical appendages to generate lift. The snakes, however, can only form an undulating flattened "S" to change direction while gliding.
The snake lands rear first and slithers away uninjured.
Socha, who has degrees in biology and physics, has spent the last six years studying snake flights for his doctoral thesis. His interest is more in the biomechanics and aerodynamics of snake flight than in the reptiles themselves. He said he saw his first flying snake in Singapore in 1997.
"I'm interested in how organisms work from a mechanical viewpoint, so what initially attracted me to this project was not the fact that I was a herpetologist who knew a lot about snakes, but that I wanted to know how an animal with no obvious wings was able to move through the air," Socha said.
The former high school science teacher's findings are published in the Aug. 8 issue of the British science journal, Nature. Quicktime movies of snake flights are posted on flyingsnake.org.
Socha, who has been bitten more than 100 times, said the snakes are active and aggressive during the day but he has never heard of any jumping out of trees on people. No one knows how often they fly, he said, adding he suspects the flights are an escape mechanism to flee predators or an efficient way to chase the lizards, birds and bats that comprise the snake's prey.
They are mildly venomous but are harmless he said, "unless you're a gecko."