A Chrysopelea paradisi snake in mid-flight.

Flying snakes are a small group of species of tree snakes that live in South and Southeast Asia. At rest they appear unremarkable, but on the move they're able to take to the air by jumping from the tree, flattening the entire body, and gliding or parachuting to the ground or another tree.

The tree snake, Chrysopelea, of south and southeast Asia is like something out of a bad dream: a serpent that can fly.

Jake Socha, a graduate student in biomechanics at the University of Chicago, was more intrigued than appalled. He wondered, how, do these creatures soar from tree to tree without aid of legs, wings, or feathers?

To find that out, Socha carried 22 captive Chrysopelea paradisi snakes up a 33-foot-tall tower in the Singapore Zoological Gardens, set them out on a horizontal branch attached to the tower’s top, and waited.

Two video cameras recorded each flight; marks that Socha had made on the snakes’ head, midpoint, and end helped him track their body position and orientation. Then he used data from the video to reconstruct the creatures’ flight pattern on a computer.

The snakes first curl their body into a J-shaped loop, with the head parallel to the ground and the body tilted on its side. To launch, they fling themselves upward and forward, straighten and flatten their bodies, and let go of the branch.

At first, the snakes fall to build up speed. Then they reorient into an S-shape and undulate from side to side, which might help generate lift. This process lets them glide about as effectively as a flying squirrel.