Are There Flying Reptiles?

lizard that glides but doesn't fly

Have you ever seen an animal besides a bird fly?  We have flying fish that jump through the air out of the sea.  There are sugar gliders that can glide through the air for extremely long distances.  But, none of these animals truly fly.  So, what about reptiles?

Are there flying reptiles?

Currently, there are no reptiles that can truly fly.  Their cold-bloodedness makes it hard for them to make fast movements like flapping wings.  However, there are some species of “flying” snakes and lizards that have amazing capabilities of gliding through the air.  And in the past, there were reptiles that could truly fly. 

In this article, we’ll discuss which reptiles today are the closest to flying.  We’ll talk about how they do it and which reptiles used to fly.

Can Any Reptiles Fly?

Sadly there are no reptiles today that can truly fly.

The first definition of ly in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to move or pass through the air with wings.”  By default, this kicks a lot of reptiles out of the category who don’t have wings.  Reptiles don’t have wings to fly or the metabolism to get the job done.  Insects and birds seem to be the only creatures in existence today that can truly achieve sustained flight.

When people talk about flying reptiles, they’re really talking about expert gliders.  Even though these reptiles can’t technically fly, it’s still impressive to see what adaptations they have to glide through the air.

Draco (Lizard)

The first group of flying reptiles is called Draco, but we’ll just refer to them as flying lizards.  Draco is a genus of reptiles that fly through the air by jumping and extending their arms out to reveal thin membranes.  Interestingly enough, these membranes are a specialized set of overgrown ribs and have a solid structure.

Flying lizards are arboreal and live in tropical rainforests.  They eat small insects and are never found on the ground.  These reptiles use flight both to get from tree to tree and to escape from predators in a pinch.

When a flying lizard is ready to glide they jump from a tree and position their bodies horizontally in the air.  They open their arms to spread their patagium out and let their hind legs splay out behind them.  Then, they’ll close their membrane and land on the next tree, hindlegs first then followed by the front legs.

Here is a short video of a flying lizard escaping from a predator by gliding.  When the lizard jumps, you can see the amazing lift it gets from its beautiful patagium.

But, lizards aren’t the only kind of reptile that glides through the air so well it’s called flight.

Chrysopelia

If you’re afraid of snakes, don’t ever go hiking in Southeast Asia or you might find one of these!

Chrysopelia is a group of snakes that are more commonly referred to as flying or gliding snakes.  Flying snakes can be found in tropical forests exclusively in Asia.  These snakes can glide incredible distances and are a subject of study for how efficiently they move through the air.

Flying snakes are slightly venomous but luckily aren’t a threat to humans.  Their venom resides in the back of their mouth and comes from small rear-facing fangs.  These snakes eat small mammals and reptiles.

So, how do these snakes glide?

Flying snakes jump from a tall tree and completely change the shape of their body while gliding.  Their ribcage flattens and then becomes about 50% wider in flight than they normally are.  Amazingly, these snakes also make s patterns as they move through the air which seems to help them with lift and direction.

Flying snakes actually save energy by gliding as compared to moving along flat ground.  Amazingly flying snakes glide better than flying squirrels even though they lack wings or membranes.  When flying snakes land on the ground they’re even able to climb back up the tree beside them.

Here’s a video of a snake gliding through the forest.  You can see how to snake’s abdomen flattens out and the pattern that it moves its head in.

Flying lizards and flying snakes are the closest things we have now to flying reptiles.  But, hundreds of thousands of years ago reptiles flew through the sky with real wings!

Reptiles That Flew In The Past

I think everyone had a moment of obsession with dinosaurs while growing up.  And if not, you’ve probably seen Jurassic Park.

Rember those flying dinosaurs, the ones that had wings?  Those were the last known reptiles to fly for real.  We’ll talk about them in detail below.

Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs are a group of flying reptiles that were alive about 65 million years ago.  These flying reptiles varied in shape and size but shared something in common, flight.

To be able to sustain flight, pterosaurs needed a very special anatomy.  These reptiles had hollow bones that were even lighter than bird bones!  It’s also been hypothesized that these reptiles had feathers along their bodies.  They had wings and some of them walked on all fours when on the ground, using their wings like front paws.

Pterosaurs are different from dinosaurs and birds didn’t actually evolve from them.  Pterosaurs were present as birds were starting to evolve and diversify and these two very different groups of animals seemed to share sky space well.  Even though birds gave pterosaurs healthy competition, they weren’t responsible for the extinction of the winged reptiles.

Why Are There No Flying Reptiles?

So, why did pterosaurs go extinct?  And why don’t any reptiles fly today?

The answer is again a hypothesis pieced together with fossils and clues found all over the world.

Mass Extinction Event

It’s believed that pterosaurs were wiped out during the mass extinction event that removed all of the dinosaurs from the planet.  This event took out about 75% of all the plant and animal species on Earth. Most recently, the event is thought to have been caused by a large asteroid collision with the planet.  But volcanoes and climate change may have also played a part.

Either way, the flying reptiles we once knew were wiped from the face of the Earth.  As animals continued to evolve from the species left on Earth, none of them turned out to b flying reptiles.

Cold-Blood Doesn’t Allow Them To Move Quickly

One of the reasons we might not see any flying reptiles today also has a lot to do with their biology.

Cold-blooded animals like reptiles don’t actually have cold blood.  Rather, the phrase describes how the animal interacts with heat.

Cold-blooded animals become the temperature of their environment.  In hot temperatures, they’re warm and active.  In cold temperatures, they’re cool and sluggish.  That’s why you’ll notice many reptiles like to bask in the sun, they don’t have any other way to heat themselves up.

Even though this might sound unrealistic cold-blooded animals save a lot of energy by operating this way.  However, it does put restrictions on their activity.

A sustained activity like flying takes a lot of energy and heat.  A reptile would have a hard time flying in the cold air and staying warm enough to continue to flap its wings.  Their metabolism isn’t nearly as fast as a bird or mammal and sometimes they just can’t keep up.  Flying would be a very taxing activity for a cold-blooded animal.

Can Reptiles Do Anything Besides Crawl And Slither?

So we know that currently there aren’t any true flying reptiles.  And, when you think about a reptile you think about them moving slowly along the ground.  But, despite their cold-bloodedness, reptiles actually have quite a few other ways to move.

Climb

Most reptiles like lizards and snakes can climb.

It’s pretty obvious how lizards can climb but snakes have adapted to be able to climb many things.  Snakes can climb up walls, trees, or even up stairs if they need to!   Snakes use specialized muscles and scales to grip the surface that they’re climbing.  So, a lack of limbs doesn’t stop these reptiles from reaching new heights.

Turtles and tortoises are two groups of reptiles that definitely can’t fly and can’t climb well either.  While turtles and tortoises can go up small inclines, if they climb something that’s too steep, they’ll end up toppling over!

Swim

Though no reptiles can fly, many can still swim!

Turtles are the obvious winners in this category.  Some turtles are semi or fully aquatic and spend their entire lives in the water.  They’re strong natural swimmers that can hold their breath for long periods of time and are naturally buoyant.

Some snakes are great swimmers and others aren’t.  For most reptiles, the ability to swim matches their natural habitat.  Desert snakes and lizards aren’t good swimmers while ones that live in wet areas are.  Ball pythons are a common house pet that can swim in a pinch, but doesn’t necessarily enjoy it!

Way more reptiles know how to traverse water than air.

Jump

Obviously, some species of reptiles can jump.  And many of the best jumping reptiles are also able to glide.  These reptiles are the ones that we refer to as “flying” reptiles.

Lizards are usually pretty good jumpers and climbers because of their long and sturdy legs.  Some of them can jump incredibly high so be careful if you’re ever handling one!

Turtles and tortoises can’t really jump because of their restrictive anatomy.  And yes, there’s a reason why turtles are known as being notoriously slow animals.

Since some snakes can climb, swim, and fly, you might expect that they can jump!  Interestingly enough, snakes cannot truly jump.   When snakes strike, part of their bodies stays on the ground.  They can explode and attack with huge energy but they can’t jump up off of the ground into the air!  Luckily a lack of limbs doesn’t;t seem to stop snakes from being some of the most mobile and intimidating reptiles out there.

Final Thoughts

Reptiles are fascinating animals.  The more you learn about these incredible creatures, the more interested you become.  Millions of years ago, flying reptiles existed in the skies along with a diverse group of birds.  Since their extinction, we no longer have any flying reptiles left on the planet.

However, even though we don’t have flying reptiles we have two groups of animals that glide so well, it’s almost considered flying!  Flying lizards and flying snakes have amazing adaptations to help them “fly” from tree to tree high up in the forests.  Personally, I’m glad I don’t have to be on the lookout for any large flying reptiles when I go for a walk in the woods!