“Top Gun: Maverick” is in the theaters and the trailer for “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” has just been released and both feature some amazing stunts by the actor The New York Times calls “America’s Last Movie Star,” Tom Cruise. Tom is small but good when it comes to aerial stunts, but the same could also be said of a small salamander which lives in the tops of California’s redwood trees and that scientists recently discovered likes to jump, parachute, glide and maneuver in mid-air in ways that would make Cruise think, “I should do a movie about living in a redwood.” Let’s meet America’s Last Flying Lizard Star, the wandering salamander.
"What struck me when I first saw the videos is that they (the salamanders) are so smooth—there's no discontinuity or noise in their motions, they're just totally surfing in the air."
Robert Dudley, University of California Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight, describes his amazement at viewing a different kind of trailer – a clip from wind tunnel experiments at UC Berkeley involving wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans), which measure just 4 inches (10 cm) long yet live their entire lives 150 above the ground in the crowns of giant redwood trees. In a press release for a new study published in the journal Current Biology, first author Christian Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, reveals how he helped track and mark wandering salamanders while studying animals that live in the canopy of redwoods in California’s Humboldt and Del Norte counties. During the course of the multi-year project, the salamanders were found in the same trees but at different heights, so it was thought that their big feet, long legs and active tails were for climbing. Those found on the ground were dead, so the common assumption is that they fell. That changed when Brown and team of researchers tested wandering salamanders and some ground salamanders in a wind tunnel of the type used to train parachutists.
“While they’re parachuting, they have an exquisite amount of maneuverable control. 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. The level of control is just impressive.”
While flying squirrels and some frogs, geckos and ants are known to glide, the wandering salamanders are truly impressive. (Watch the video here.) The study researchers believe the salamander developed it’s skydiving skills because it lived so high off the ground and needed a way to get back if it fell or jumped to avoid a predator. The other salamanders in the test flailed and spun out of control in the wind tunnel. Brown also noticed that the wandering salamanders were ‘jumpier’ than the others – leaping from branches and leaves at the slightest detection of movement. However, he thinks the parachuting ability evolved not just to avoid enemies but for a more ‘pedestrian’ purpose.
“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.”
The wandering salamanders were observed walking up the redwoods or horizontally, but walking back down is so exerting and treacherous that they just jumped and flew back home ... not a bad option. This ability has rarely been studied before because the redwoods are so tall and, unfortunately, the existence of canopies is dwindling as old trees are felled and replaced by new forests that are centuries away from developing their own. Sadly, as Robert Dudley points out, this will rob us of a unique place to study how the ability to glide and then to fly evolved in animals. For example, unlike other gliders, the wandering salamander don’t have large flaps of skin to spread in the form of wings or parachutes.
“The large feet and long toes of A. vagrans seem to form ventrally concave surfaces while parachuting, and may serve to produce useful lift and drag. Relatively long limbs position the feet distant from the center of body mass, suggesting the possibility for enhanced aerodynamic torque and adaptation for aerial maneuvering.”
The researchers conclude that more study is necessary … especially as the redwood canopies disappear.
The Wandering Salamanders sounds like a good name for a band and Gravity Elevator a good opening act. Perhaps they could record the soundtrack for Tom Cruise’s flying lizard movie: “Top Gecko.”