It’s well known that Australia, the biggest island landmass in the world, cultivates weird and wonderful – and often rather deadly – lifeforms and behaviors not seen in many (or sometimes any) other places.
Now, researchers from Virginia Tech have discovered something curious and previously unknown about one of its most common inhabitants. Common tree snakes, found in many parts of the huge continent, can jump.
There’s a good chance you are currently thinking: great, in Australia you already have to keep one eye on the ground at all times for potential things that can bite, sting, and generally kill you, now you have to look up too in case you’re hit with a flying snake pinging itself across your path.
The good news is Australian tree snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis are non-venomous and so harmless to humans.
Many tree-dwelling snakes around the world can fling, glide, and hoist themselves about the treetops. For animals without limbs, they are incredibly agile. There are five species of “flying” snakes in the Chrysopelea genus that range across Southeast Asia, China, India, and Sri Lanka. Although they don’t technically fly, they glide, much like the similarly misnomered flying squirrel.
Many species of tree snakes can also “bridge” from tree to tree, extending themselves out until they reach another branch that can take their weight.
However, back in 2010, Dr Jake Socha, a professor in the Department for Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech, filmed Dendrelaphis pictus, also known as the painted bronzeback, jumping in the wild.
As a famous space ranger once said, this isn't flying, this is falling with style. SochaLab/YouTube
Dendrelaphis are closely related to Chrysopelea, so this behavior is perhaps not so surprising, but it hadn’t been confirmed and it certainly hadn’t been studied. Enter, Michelle Graham, PhD candidate studying the mechanics of flying snakes at Socha’s lab.
Graham went to Australia to see if she could capture some of these snakes and get them to perform these jumping feats in lab conditions. According to National Geographic, she built a “little snake jungle gym” out of pipes and branches, to see if she could coax them into showing off their jumping skills by leaping across the gap between the two.
She discovered that indeed snakes in the genus Dendrelaphis can jump, hurling themselves across empty gaps. To do this, they hunker down low and launch themselves upwards, using their own momentum to carry them across the gap.
“What’s interesting about these snakes is their ability to do all these interesting locomotive behaviors with no limbs,” Graham told NatGeo.
Now she has confirmed that they can jump, she is looking into why. There is very little evidence in fact why any jumping or gliding creatures – snakes, lizards, or squirrels – do what they do.
“To be the first person studying this behavior means you don’t really know the context in which a snake does it,” Graham added. Is it “an escape behavior? Is it a common transport behavior? Is it just something they do for lulz? Nobody knows, right?”
Understanding the biomechanics of how snakes move about in trees – essentially a 3D plane that humans do not usually experience – could have important implications in the development of AI and robotics that can navigate and explore unusual terrain such as collapsed buildings, broken flooring, and perhaps even the surface of other planets.
Wait for iitttttttttttt. SochaLab/YouTube
[H/T: National Geographic]