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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We're going to move on now and talk about an entirely different type of flying experience, namely flying snakes. An unusual breed of Asian snakes can fly distances of almost 800 feet. Well, that's pretty cool in and of itself, and it's apparently impressed officials at the Pentagon, too. The Pentagon is funding research into how the snakes manage such long distances in the air and whether there might be military applications.

Well, the lead researcher on this is Jake Socha. He's a professor at Virginia Tech, and he joins us now. Hi, Jake.

Dr. JAKE SOCHA (Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, Virginia Tech): Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So describe these snakes for us. They're pretty small, not particularly remarkable looking at rest.

Dr. SOCHA: No. And that's one of the amazing things about them is that when you just look at them they appear to be - look like any other snake, but what they can do is really quite incredible.

KELLY: Yeah. I've been watching some of the videos that you shot of these snakes in the air, and it looks as though they take a flying leap and then, in some cases, drop straight down before they start to glide. Explain what it is they're able to do.

Dr. SOCHA: Well, they're not really dropping straight down. First of all, they literally jump from a branch, and they anchor the back of their body, they hang, and then they leap into the air. Right as they're leaping, they flatten their bodies out from just behind the head to where the tail starts. And then this dropping that you were talking about, it's going down at a slight angle, and as it picks up speed, the animal generates more and more aerodynamic force, and it starts to propel it horizontally rather than down, and then it really is gliding.

KELLY: Is it almost as though they're able to transform their bodies into a kind of wing? Is that what's happening?

Dr. SOCHA: Absolutely. One of the things that's different about this flyer is that everything else you can think of, from birds and bats to insects to gliding squirrels to all kinds of engineered flyers, they generally have bilateral symmetry. So their left and their right is the same.

KELLY: OK.

Dr. SOCHA: But this animal is different in that it takes its whole body and makes it into a wing and then undulates in the air. So it's not symmetrical from left to right.

KELLY: Now, we're calling them flying snakes.

Dr. SOCHA: Yes.

KELLY: Technically, are they flying, or are they gliding? Is there a difference?

Dr. SOCHA: Well, they are gliding, but gliding is a form of flight.

KELLY: OK.

Dr. SOCHA: They just can't actively fly. They can't go upward in still air.

KELLY: They can't go up, right.

Dr. SOCHA: So you don't have to worry there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: I have to say, this is as someone who's not overly fond of snakes, this is kind of my worst nightmare, snakes that not only slither but can take off and fly.

Dr. SOCHA: Right. It's many people's nightmare.

KELLY: You must get that a lot when you're presenting your research.

Well, we mentioned Defense Department funding and specifically DARPA, the arm of the military that works on developing new technology. How did that come about? Did they approach you? Did you approach them? What happened?

Dr. SOCHA: Well, I think it was mutual. We had similar interests. Their interest in this was not of the applied technological side. They were interested in this from a basic science perspective, so trying to understand this snake, how it works aerodynamically, trying to understand the fundamentals of how this thing that's so very different from everything else in the engineering and biological world works.

KELLY: Now, we spoke with DARPA, and a representative there told us what you're saying, that they had wanted to study the simulated modeling and gliding that these snakes are able to do. Can you imagine what it is that the Pentagon might be able to do with this, if you're projecting out into flying, into flying technology that they're trying to develop?

Dr. SOCHA: Sure. Well, there are some immediate possible applications. And for one, there's a lot of interest in micro-air vehicles. So these are small vehicles that can fly autonomously. They're of the size of insects to birds and bats.

So we don't have anything that does what a snake does in the air, but maybe we can make something like that, and maybe it might have some use.

KELLY: Well, thanks so much for talking with us.

Dr. SOCHA: Thank you very much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's Jake Socha, a professor at Virginia Tech, talking about his research into flying Asian snakes. And you can see those snakes fly at our news blog, The Two-Way, at npr.org.

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