'Parachuting' salamanders move their bodies like skydivers
The amphibians live high in the canopies of giant redwood trees in California.
Wandering salamanders twist and turn their bodies like human skydivers to control their falls, a study carried out at the University of South Florida has found.
To make the discovery, the team placed salamanders Aneides vagrans into a small vertical wind tunnel and filmed their movements using a high-speed digital camera. They found that A. vagrans were able to maintain a stable gliding posture by moving their tails and legs in a manner similar to human skydivers. By doing so they were able to slow the speed of their falling by up to 10 per cent.
“To observe salamanders, which are generally associated with ponds and streams, in the air is a bit unexpected in and of itself. Most surprising to us was the exquisite level of control that the more arboreal salamanders had in the vertical wind tunnel. Wandering salamanders were especially adept and seemed to instinctively deploy skydiving postures upon first contact with the airstream,” said the study’s lead author Christian Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida.
“These salamanders were not only able to slow themselves down, but also used fine-scale control in pitch, roll, and yaw to maintain upright body postures, execute banking turns, and glide horizontally.”
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
The finding is particularly surprising as the salamanders don’t have any webbing or flaps on the surface of their skin to help them parachute and glide, the researchers say. This could potentially mean that other animals also have hidden skydiving abilities.
The team now plan to use computational fluid dynamics and 3D modelling software to investigate further how the salamanders are able to generate lift. They also hope that the findings will help attract attention to A. vagrans, which are currently classified as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
“Scientists have barely scratched the surface in studying the redwood canopy ecosystem and the unique fauna it has shaped through evolutionary time,” said Brown.
“With the climate changing at an unprecedented rate, it is vitally important that we collect more data on animals like wandering salamanders so we may better understand, protect, and preserve this delicate ecosystem.”
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.