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Christian Brown, from the University of South Florida, noticed while working in a lab with salamanders that they would glide as the amphibians would willingly leap from his spread-out hand. Aneides vagrans or better known as Wandering salamanders this species is native to the region of deep far north California forests.
They are known to look for the moisture that giant redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens). These towering trees can reach heights of 88 meters or 288 feet. That’s nearly high enough to reach lengths to rival a skyscraper, most salamanders inhabit bogs or steams, but some spend their entire life in the trees and ferns platforms that surround them.
“The fern mats are a refuge up there that allow them to survive, but it’s a harsh world,” Brown stated. An experiment was designed by Brown along with some fellow colleagues in order to capture the leaping behavior in a more focused environment.
The team excluded the possibility of using environments such as treetops or buildings they came up with a more intuitive idea by using a wind tunnel. “We were a bit shocked by just how adept they are at controlling their aerial behaviours” added Brown. The salamanders stretched their limbs lowering their speed by 10% using their tails like rudders on an airplane to glide in a horizontal manner.
The wandering salamanders underwent an approximate 45 trials each time yielding the same results “We expected that maybe [the salamanders] could keep themselves upright.
However, we never expected to observe parachuting or gliding,” Brown continued. “They were able to slow themselves down and change directions.” This type of behavior can be seen as important in order to survive in such tall trees. Allowing the salamanders to reorientate themselves as a result of a fall to get back onto a tree. Gliding can open the possibility to allow salamanders to quickly access new locations to food sources.
“Maybe your fern mat’s drying out, maybe there’s no bugs. Maybe there are no mates in your fern mat, you look down — there’s another fern mat, why would you take the time to walk down the tree and waste energy, be exposed and [risk] being preyed upon, when you could take the gravity elevator?” said Brown.
According to a macroevolutionary biologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Erica Baken who had no involvement in this research there are other arboreal species that do not live as high as Aneides vagrans. Ultimately the ability to skydive gives salamanders a competitive edge against escaping predators, provides a better way to navigate trees, and allows new homes and better access to food such as bugs.
Written by Skye Leon
Edited by Sheena Robertson
New Scientist: Watch salamanders ‘skydive’ in a miniature wind tunnel
Science News: ‘Wandering’ salamanders glide like skydivers from the world’s tallest trees
Science: Watch salamanders ‘skydive’ in a wind tunnel