Salamanders have a rather slab-like reputation – well deserved for the absolute units that are giant salamanders and olms that don't move for seven years – but some of these amphibians are real thrill-seekers. It turns out wandering salamanders are actually quite good at skydiving, a finding that follows a study in which researchers filmed them in the action and the resulting videos are *chef's kiss*.
Wandering salamanders, known to science as Aneides vagrans, are found in the crowns of the world’s tallest trees: redwoods. Despite the dizzying heights they climb to, they’ve been observed to quite willingly leap from branches when disturbed – a behavior that wouldn’t be terribly adaptive unless they’d evolved some way of surviving the fall.
To see how they stuck the landing, the authors behind a new paper published in the journal Current Biology built a custom-made vertical wind tunnel to simulate falling from the tree canopy. As well as allowing the researchers to record the skydiving salamanders, it's a more ethical and practical approach than yeeting amphibians out of trees.
Salamanders observed in the study included species that were highly arboreal, like A. vagrans, and others that were not to see what (if any) behaviors were associated with tree climbers. They then popped the animals into the wind tunnel to see if they simply fell, or if they employed any maneuvers to control their fall.
"Most surprising to us was the exquisite level of control that the more arboreal salamanders had in the vertical wind tunnel,” said lead author Christian Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida, in a statement. “Wandering salamanders were especially adept and seemed to instinctively deploy skydiving postures upon first contact with the airstream.”
The arboreal salamanders’ skydiving skills saw their vertical speed in the wind tunnel drop by up to 10 percent, a difference that could mean life or death when plummeting from the treetops. It seems that by adjusting their legs and tail, these animals can alter their speed and direction while falling with style.
“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,” said Brown. “This level of aerial control was unexpected because these salamanders do not seem to possess conspicuous features for aerial control.”
Features you might expect to find in skydiving animals might be webbing like those seen in humans’ wingsuits, or the skin flaps of sugar gliders who are so good at falling they were named for it. The fact that it’s possible to parachute and glide without these traits opens up the possibility of finding more skydivers in the animal kingdom getting it down with atypical morphologies for “flight”.
“Scientists have barely scratched the surface in studying the redwood canopy ecosystem and the unique fauna it has shaped through evolutionary time,” concluded 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.”