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Aerodynamics of the flying snake Chrysopelea paradisi: how a bluff body cross-sectional shape contributes to gliding performance
Daniel Holden, John J. Socha, Nicholas D. Cardwell, Pavlos P. Vlachos


A prominent feature of gliding flight in snakes of the genus Chrysopelea is the unique cross-sectional shape of the body, which acts as the lifting surface in the absence of wings. When gliding, the flying snake Chrysopelea paradisi morphs its circular cross-section into a triangular shape by splaying its ribs and flattening its body in the dorsoventral axis, forming a geometry with fore–aft symmetry and a thick profile. Here, we aimed to understand the aerodynamic properties of the snake's cross-sectional shape to determine its contribution to gliding at low Reynolds numbers. We used a straight physical model in a water tunnel to isolate the effects of 2D shape, analogously to studying the profile of an airfoil of a more typical flyer. Force measurements and time-resolved (TR) digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) were used to determine lift and drag coefficients, wake dynamics and vortex-shedding characteristics of the shape across a behaviorally relevant range of Reynolds numbers and angles of attack. The snake's cross-sectional shape produced a maximum lift coefficient of 1.9 and maximum lift-to-drag ratio of 2.7, maintained increases in lift up to 35 deg, and exhibited two distinctly different vortex-shedding modes. Within the measured Reynolds number regime (Re=3000–15,000), this geometry generated significantly larger maximum lift coefficients than many other shapes including bluff bodies, thick airfoils, symmetric airfoils and circular arc airfoils. In addition, the snake's shape exhibited a gentle stall region that maintained relatively high lift production even up to the highest angle of attack tested (60 deg). Overall, the cross-sectional geometry of the flying snake demonstrated robust aerodynamic behavior by maintaining significant lift production and near-maximum lift-to-drag ratios over a wide range of parameters. These aerodynamic characteristics help to explain how the snake can glide at steep angles and over a wide range of angles of attack, but more complex models that account for 3D effects and the dynamic movements of aerial undulation are required to fully understand the gliding performance of flying snakes.


  • Author contributions

    D.H., J.J.S. and P.P.V. designed the experiments; D.H. conducted the experiments; D.H., J.J.S., N.D.C. and P.P.V. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

  • Competing interests

    The authors declare no competing financial interests.

  • Funding

    This research was partially supported by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant W911NF1010040 to J.J.S. and P.P.V.

  • Supplementary material

    Supplementary material available online at http://jeb.biologists.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1242/jeb.090902/-/DC1

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