California salamanders have surprising skydiving skills, UC Berkeley researchers find

·3 min read
Christian Brown, University of South Florida

Some salamanders make incredible skydivers, according to a newly published study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

The wandering salamander, or Aneides vagrans, lives its life in some of the world’s tallest trees. The amphibians adapted the ability to “parachute, glide and maneuver in mid-air” to avoid the danger of falling from high places, a news release on the study said.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, found that the salamanders can jump from trees or other high places when disturbed and maintain a stable gliding position by adjusting their limbs and tails mid-air.

The findings were somewhat surprising because they showed that the salamanders have “an exquisite amount of maneuverable control” over their movements in the air, researcher Christian Brown said in the news release.

“They are able to turn. They are able to flip themselves over if they go upside down. They’re able to maintain that skydiving posture and kind of pump their tail up and down to make horizontal maneuvers,” Brown, a doctoral candidate from the University of South Florida, said. “The level of control is just impressive.”

The skydiving salamanders don’t have any noticeable physical differences from ones that can’t maneuver themselves in the air, such as skin flaps that might indicate the ability to parachute, the release said.

Researchers also found that the salamanders were able to effectively decelerate in all 45 of their trials, the study said.

“Salamanders are sluggish, you don’t think of them as having particularly fast reflexes. It’s life in the slow lane,” Robert Dudley, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight, said in the release. “And flight control is all about rapid response to dynamic visual cues and being able to target and orient and change your body position. So, it’s just kind of odd. How often can this be happening, anyway, and how would we know?”

Brown said the salamanders appear to have evolved their aerial abilities to deal with falls, but may now use them as another means of getting around. He and another researcher, Jessalyn Aretz, found that the animals have much more difficulty climbing downward than they do climbing upward.

“That suggests that when they’re wandering, they’re likely walking on flat surfaces, or they’re walking upward,” he said. “Why walk back down? You’re already probably exhausted. You’ve burned all your energy, you’re a little 5 gram salamander, and you’ve just climbed the tallest tree on Earth. You’re not going to turn around and walk down — you’re going to take the gravity elevator.”

Researchers said their findings have led them to more questions – namely, how the salamanders have developed these skills without also developing new physical characteristics, and whether there might be other animals that also have similar skills that scientists have never noticed before, the release said.

They also said their findings might help direct focus to the preservation of the redwoods where wandering salamanders live and to boosting the population of salamanders in California’s ecosystems, the release said.

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