Defying Gravity

It's not a bird or a plane. It's a skydiving salamander.

Flying salamander? Well, not quite, but there is a species called the wandering salamander that lives in the tallest tallest trees on earth, and can do a very convincing imitation of flight, parachuting on its way down to another branch, another tree or the ground.

Other wingless animals can coast safely through the air. The flying squirrel maybe the archetype, and some spiders, lizards and frogs can sail through the air and come in for soft landing.

Most have obvious control surfaces - the skin flaps of the flying squirrel are a good example. But wandering salamanders, which live atop California redwoods look much like closely related species that never go airborne.

In a new study, researchers tested the skills of arboreal and ground-dwelling salamanders using a wind tunnel to simulate flight from the top of the trees.

''We climb trees to study them,'' said ChristianE. Brown, a doctoral candidate in biology at the University of South Florida and an author of the study, '' but studying the flight is difficult in nature, almost impossible. For that, we needed the wind tunnel.''

But when a salamander was placed into the tunnel, it extended its legs as it felt the breeze, stayed perfectly upright, glided up and down with the stream of air and turned gracefully, apparently much at ease while defying gravity. [Nicholas Bakalar]


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