In the animal world, there are three types of flight: gliding, soaring, and powered. Gliding is passive, involving extended body surfaces that transform a vertical fall into a gradual transverse descent. A diapsid reptile named Coelurosaur-avus, found in Western Europe and Madagascar, was the first vertebrate to develop this method in the Late Permian, 260 million years ago; it was 1-2 feet long and had large, retractable wings supported by twenty-two rodlike bones that were not attached to the skeleton and probably were evolved specifically for flight. Another gliding reptile, Icarosaurus siefkeri, lived during the
Triassic, 175-200 million years ago, and developed a gliding flight from membranes attached to hinged wing struts extended from its ribs; it was 7 inches long and had a 10-inch wingspan.
The Common flying lizard (Draco volans) of Malaysia is similarly outfitted with wings supported by elongated ribs; these are spread when it jumps from trees and glides as far as 30 feet to the ground. Other gliders include the Chinese gliding tree frog (Polypedates dennysi), which has suction cups on its toes that enable it to stick to the bark and leaves of the tropical trees and webbed feet that act as parachutes as it falls from tree to tree; the 7-inch Flying gecko (Ptychozoon lionotum), which has a loose fold of skin along its legs that allows it to glide; and the 3- to 4-foot Golden tree snake (Chrysopelea ornata) of Malaysia and Indonesia that jumps from tree to tree by contracting its body into a concave surface to slow its fall and by undulating in the air to change course (broad, keeled scales on its underside allow it to grip the tree bark).
Soaring is accomplished by using extended body surfaces to navigate air currents or rising columns of air, as hawks and eagles do. Powered flight is generated by flapping paired aerodynamic wings up and down, creating lift.
The flying reptiles of the Mesozoic were capable of both soaring and true flight. Pterosaur wing membranes were attached to a tremendously elongated fourth finger, supported by three other digits that allowed the animal to crawl on the ground or clamber through trees after the wing was folded. The early, crow-sized, short-tailed pterodactyls were powered, flapping fliers, slightly unstable yet agile. Long-tailed, narrow-winged pterosaurs such as Rham-phorhynchus were probably accomplished soar-ers. Pteranodon, with a wingspan of 23 feet, was capable of short, powered flights but was better at long, soaring flights over the sea. The large, short-tailed Cretaceous pterosaurs, such as Quetzalcoatlus with a wingspan of 38 feet, were limited to continuous gliding and soaring under mild weather conditions.
Of the thirteen flying reptiles in this section, five are clearly identified as flying (or gliding) snakes. The other eight have been compared to pterosaurs by observers or commentators. The evidence for any one of these cryptids is not particularly strong, but collectively, these creatures embody an intriguing tradition.
Additional types of animals or legends may be involved, such as unknown types of bats, Big Birds, or various Dragon traditions. A Mayan relief sculpture of a bird with reptilian characteristics was discovered in the 1960s by archaeologist José Diaz-Bolio at the ruins of El Tajin in Veracruz State, Mexico, which flourished from a.d. 600 to 1200. Such representations are considered by Mayan scholars to depict either stylized birds such as Macaws (parrots of the genera Ara and Anodorhynchus) or myths such as the celestial bird Itzam-yeh, which represents nature tamed by the Mayans. Some have compared the El Tajin sculpture to a primitive bird such as an Archaeopteryx or a pterosaur. "Serpent-Bird of the Mayans," Science Digest 64 (November 1968): 1.
Arabian Flying Snake; Cretan Pterosaur; European Flying Snake; Kongamato; Man-aus Pterosaur; Nahuel Huapî Pterosaur; Namibian Flying Snake; Oiitau; Ropen; Snallygaster; T'ang Flying Snake; Trappe Pterosaur; Welsh Winged Snake
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