Flying salamanders? Well, not quite, but there is a species called the wandering salamander that lives in the tallest trees on earth and can do a very convincing imitation of flight, parachuting from great heights down to another branch, another tree or the ground.
There are other wingless animals that can navigate safely through the air. The flying squirrel may be the archetype, and certain spiders, lizards, and frogs can navigate through the air and land smoothly. Most have obvious control surfaces – the flying squirrel’s skin flaps are a good example. But wandering salamanders, which live atop California redwoods, look nearly identical to closely related species that never fly.
In a study published Monday in Current Biology, researchers tested the skills of arboreal and terrestrial salamanders using a wind tunnel to simulate flight from treetops.
“We climb trees to study them,” said Christian E. Brown, a PhD student in biology at the University of South Florida and study author, “but studying flight is inherently difficult, almost impossible. , we needed the wind tunnel.
Even in the laboratory, working with animals poses problems.
“They jump right at you,” Mr. Brown said. “We had to slow things down, and the wind tunnel is also safer for the animals. We had vets watching them between trials, and we were doing three trials a day with each animal, no more. It took several weeks to arrive at 45 trials.
They gently dropped a non-arboreal species into the tunnel and watched it fall head over heels to the bottom.
But when a wandering salamander slipped from a researcher’s hand into the tunnel, it stretched its legs as soon as it felt the breeze, stood perfectly upright, slid up and down with the air current, and spun gracefully, seemingly very comfortable defying gravity. These are useful skills for an animal that lives on top of a 250 foot tree.
Wandering salamanders have certain physical characteristics that may contribute to their ability to soar. Their body is slightly flatter than that of non-arboreal species and their limbs are long. Their large feet and long toes form concave surfaces that can function as a kind of parachute, slowing their fall through the air.
But these bodily characteristics don’t fully explain their remarkable ability to twist and turn to slowly change direction, control their speed, and maintain an upright posture.
“They can make moves and spin on a dime,” Mr. Brown said.
Flight controls appear to be legs and tail. When the researchers dropped the wandering salamanders into the wind tunnel upside down or upside down, they could immediately spin their tails and pull themselves into an upright position. When they tuck in the right back leg, the body pivots around that leg. They can adopt postures that modify their speed. Yet what makes the animal capable of these movements remains a mystery.
Watching a movie of the wandering salamander floating and hovering like an astronaut aboard the space station makes it seem like the animal is having a really good time. Is it?
“We can’t interrogate them,” Mr. Brown said wistfully, “and it’s hard to know what a salamander is thinking.”