The image of airborne snakes may seem like the stuff of nightmares, but in the jungles of South and Southeast Asia it is reality.
Once thought to be more parachuters than gliders, recent scientific studies have revealed intricate details about how these limbless, tube-shaped creatures turn plummeting into piloting. To prepare for take-off, a flying snake will slither to the end of a branch, and dangle in a J shape. It propels itself from the branch with the lower half of its body, forms quickly into an S, and flattens to about twice its normal width, giving its normally round body a concave C shape, which can trap air. By undulating back and forth, the snake can actually make turns.
There are five recognized species of flying snake, found from western India to the Indonesian archipelago. Knowledge of their behavior in the wild is limited, but they are thought to be highly arboreal, rarely descending from the canopy. The smallest species reach about 2 feet (61 centimeters) in length and the largest grow to 4 feet (1.2 meters).
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