Journey to the Land of the Gliders in ‘Snakes That Fly’

Hundreds of feet in the air, in the midst of the verdant canopy of the Malaysian rainforest, is a world unto itself. The rules that preside on the ground do not govern up here. Animals have adapted to a life virtually free from terra firma. It is home to the gliders: animals that travel through the air without the benefit of wings.

As a result, the canopy is home to some of the most bizarre and least understood animals on the planet. In fact, there are more gliders here than any place else on Earth. And they take all shapes and sizes. Snakes That Fly travels to this remote part of the world to discover how these creatures “fly.”

The colugo, commonly referred to as the “flying lemur,” looks like a large, furry bat with huge eyes and a slow, quiet disposition. It spends most of its days perched perfectly still on the bark of a tree, hiding from predators. At dusk, however, it comes alive; leaping from its perch, stretching out its limbs, extending a thin layer of skin and gliding great distances across the canopy. They were once considered ghosts of the jungle, mysterious creatures silently floating overhead through the night sky. Nowadays, jungle visitors know what they are. Yet scientists still know very little about these nocturnal mammals.

Norman Lim has come to the jungle in search of answers about the colugo. He climbs high into the canopy to witness behaviors never seen before. For the first time, Lim spots male colugos fight for territory. He tracks an individual female through the forest by means of a radio transmitter to help determine the home range of these enigmatic creatures. And with the help of a miniature video camera, the agility during the colugo’s flight is captured from the colugo’s perspective for the first time. The cloak of mystery surrounding the colugo is slowly lifting.

There are at least 34 species of gliders in the Southeast Asian rainforest. All use a similar method to the colugo to remain airborne—an extended layer of skin that catches the air like a kite. It’s an easy concept to grasp. What’s not nearly as intuitive is the gliding ability of the least aerodynamic of animals—the snake.

The five species of gliding snakes look and act like any other jungle tree snake. But when they leap from a tree, they can glide hundreds of feet across the canopy. Their abilities rival that of the lizards and squirrels, yet they have no wings! How can they accomplish such a feat?

That’s what Jake Socha is here to find out. As a biomechanics professor, he’s been studying these snakes for a dozen years and understands the basics of the snakes’ miracle maneuvering. Now he’s preparing to take his study to the next level—50 feet off the ground. Socha is going to launch flying snakes off a platform and capture their motion using hi-tech video cameras. What’s revealed is a complex, intricate set of transformations.

It starts with the sudden change of the snake’s body from a cylinder to a flattened ribbon. This new shape actually helps create lift as the snake falls through the air. But this shape alone is not sufficient to create a true gliding motion. So, in the next instant, the snake begins swimming through the air. It brings its tail towards its head, creating an “S” shape. It then begins a normal slithering motion as if it were on the ground or in tree. This undulation in an “S”-curve configuration, combined with the flattening of its body, creates enough lift to allow the snake to glide.

Over the course of millions of years these snakes have evolved the ability to virtually transform its body into a wing.  Socha has made a remarkable discovery, one step closer to understanding one of the most remarkable behaviors of the rainforest. 

Snakes That Fly presents these unique gliding animals like you’ve never seen them before: spectacularly photographed in hyper slow motion, and featuring new insights and amazing observations about some of the world’s least understood creatures.


Don’t miss Snakes That Fly tonight, July 31st at 9P et/pt on Nat Geo WILD.