"They look like they are swimming," he said. "They turn their whole body into one aerodynamic surface."
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To determine what's going on up close, the researchers used a 3-D printer to produce a rod with the same cross-section as the snake's body. They then placed it across a tank filled with water that flowed over the snake-shaped bar.
Socha explained that, although water is much denser than air, it was possible for he and his colleagues to precisely recreate the air conditions experienced as the snakes fly. They flowed water over the model at a specific range of speeds. Those speeds ranged from about 8 to 20 inches per second.
Slightly tilting the snake model revealed that, at most angles, the snake's body generated sufficient lift to account for the impressive gliding. When the rod was flat, however, turbulence created a suction-like force on the snake model, pulling it downward.
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"Maybe the snake does hold part of its body flat at some point, using it as a mechanism for control," Socha said, explaining that twisting the body while airborne could allow the snakes to fine tune the forces on their bodies for precise flight control.