Flying Snake Frequently Asked Questions

How many species are there?  •   Where do they live?  •   How big are they?  •   Do they have wings?  •   Can they fly upwards?  •   Why do they fly?  •   Do they bite?  •   Are they venomous?  •   Do they have fangs?  •   Can they kill you?  •   What do they eat?  •   What eats them?  •   Where do they sleep?  •   How do they get up the tree?  •   How often do they fly?  •   When are they active?  •   Are they endangered?  •   Do they land on people?  •   Do they make good pets?  •  

How many species are there?

Five - Chrysopelea ornata, C. paradisi, C. pelias, C. rhodopleuron, and C. taprobanica, according to Robert Mertens' 1968 classification. Basic taxonomic information can be found at the EMBL.

Where do they live?

Flying snakes live in the trees in the lowland tropical rainforests of Southeast and South Asia. Here is a map of their approximate distribution.

How big are they?

Most adult flying snakes are 3-4 feet long (1-1.2 meters). C. ornata is the largest species, and C. pelias the smallest with an adult size of only 2 feet (60-70 cm).

Do they have wings?

No. They do, however, flatten their bodies from head to vent when they are in the air. What happens to the viscera when they flatten? I don't know.

Can they fly upwards?

No. Technically they are parachuters (though some may be classified as gliders), so they can only move downwards through the air. Which means that they have to start at a point that is higher than the one that they are travelling to. It's the same as with flying squirrels, which you're probably familiar with.

Why do they fly?

No one really knows - there have been no studies that document their movement through the trees. In general, animals that glide do so for one of the following reasons: efficient vertical travel (it takes less energy to glide to a tree next to yours than to climb down than climb up the target tree), quick vertical travel (same argument), to chase prey, or to escape a predator. From anectodal evidence, it appears that flying snakes use flight to travel easily from tree to tree. But it may be some combination of the above - the snakes I've worked with perform the best when they're trying to get away from me.

Do they bite?

Yes, quite readily. Actually, their temperament varies from species to species, and from individual to individual. The Golden Tree snake (C. ornata) is the most ornery - they seem to strike at anything moving. The Paradise Tree snake (C. paradisi) has much less of an inclination to bite, though I have had a specimen that was fairly aggressive. The only specimen of Twin-banded Tree snake (C. pelias) that I've handled was quite docile.

Are they venomous?

Yes, but only mildy so. Flying snakes are colubrids (list of all genera of the family Colubridae), and most colubrids are harmless. The flying snake is no exception - although it is able to secrete a mild venom, it is only dangerous to their small prey. The worst problem associated with a bite to humans reported in the scientific literature is a swollen finger. Most people that get bitten have no problems. Bites are probably more harmful to the snake, as their teeth can be ripped out, which can lead to infections.

Do they have fangs?

Yes, but not as you may imagine. Flying snakes are opistoglyphous, or rear-fanged, which means that the fangs are in the rear of the mouth (other fang types). Because they're in the rear of the mouth, and are fixed, they can't be that big or they'd poke through the bottom of the mouth. In flying snakes, they are only 2-3 mm long. They are not hollow, but have a small groove that runs along the outer edge of the fang. The venom drips down this groove and into the prey item.

Can they kill you?

Not unless you're highly allegeric to them. Or you're a gecko. They are officially classified as "harmless".

What do they eat?

They'll eat pretty much any small vertebrate in the trees - lizards, frogs, birds and bats. Paradise Tree snakes are primarily lizard eaters.

What eats them?

Not really known. Perhaps predatory birds, primates, other snakes.

Where do they sleep?

Again, no one really knows. Most likely in the trees, or perhaps on the ground (though not likely).

How do they get up the tree?

They use any surface irregularity (like an edge of bark) to push against with their belly scales, which have 2 ridges (sometimes called "keels") that help them grip better. They laterally undulate up, and are able to move up surprisingly quickly.

How often do they fly?

No one knows.

When are they active?

During the day.

Are they endangered?

No, but one species, C. pelias, is rare within its range. A rigorous ecological study would be required to determine if it's in trouble.

Do they land on people?

Only if you're directly below them, and I've never heard of this happening. There's no need to worry about snakes falling out of the skies, even if you live in Southeast Asia.

Do they make good pets?

Not really. C. ornata is extremely aggressive - it usually bites if given the chance, no matter how long it's kept in captivity. Also, flying snakes need special conditions - a large vertical tank with lots of branches, a warm temperature, and high humidity. Paradise Tree snakes don't seem to do well in captivity, though the Golden Tree snake is fairly hardy if you can stand the bites.


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