These Snakes Don’t Need a Plane

blog post photo

by Nature Untamed Production Crew

We spent another day filming flying snakes gliding from a cherry picker, 50 feet in the air. The first day’s filming didn’t work all that well, probably because the snakes needed a better environment, a more reasonable path of escape—they like to see trees in the near distance that they might climb after landing. We switched our configuration around to something that we thought would cater to their tastes, and almost right away we were getting the good stuff. It took our cameraman on the ground only a few tries before he was tracking the snakes through their entire trajectory, capturing amazing new footage in high resolution and super-slow motion. I’d be able to see details of gliding flight in snakes that I’d been dreaming about for years. Flying snake dreams—for some a nightmare, to me, a Monet painting.

Most people won’t appreciate how difficult this is, this type of filming. You watch on TV and just shrug, and say “oh that’s nice.” Modern technology. If you think they could do it, I’d suggest trying this. Ask a friend to stand on top of a 3-story building, holding a three-foot piece of thin rope, and maybe put weight on the end of it to make it easier to sling and chuck. Standing about 50 feet away on the ground, take your point-and-shoot digital camera and zoom in all the way, so that your friend fills the field of view. Switch it to video mode. Should be a little shaky. Now, ask your friend to throw the rope straight out, and track it from the time it leaves the hand all the way to the ground. How’d that go? I’m guessing, not so well. Now add a twist: ask your friend to throw it at a random time so you don’t know when it’s coming, and to throw it in any direction so you don’t know where it’s going. Add in some extra motion to simulate gliding rather than just a throw and fall—you could do this all day long and not get anything good.

John Benam is a pro, and he did do this all day long. He was nailing three out of four glides, capturing the animal all the way from takeoff to landing, and with the added difficulty of slinging around a large brick of a video camera, in the blazing heat, sweat dripping down every surface. I can’t express how impressed I was—this is hard stuff. For me to get this kind of information, I would have to mount multiple cameras in a stationary position, and hope the snake passed through the view at some point. It might take weeks to get something decent, and even then I’d be lucky. John compressed weeks into hours. To me, he was not only a pro, but a rock star.

Sometimes I consider what I’d be doing if I weren’t a scientist. I can’t really imagine it. But if I could choose, I’d be John Benam, spending days and months chasing animals through the forest recording never-before-seen behavior. (But maybe I’d skip all the slogging of hundreds of pounds of equipment. Or the bug bites. Or lack of sleep, or eating granola bars for dinner, or the endless hours on planes, boats, and rickety buses. Just the filming, and being John Benam. Yeah, that. But I suspect his wife and kids might have something to say about that.

Video Preview: “Snakes Defying Gravity” — Scientists have finally been able to capture gliding snakes on film–but will they discover what allows them to fly?

Don’t miss Nature Untamed “Snakes that Fly” premiering November 5th at 9P et/pt.