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These Salamanders Skydive Sixty Feet and Live to Tell the Tale

The wandering salamander is one of California's bolder creatures. But why do they do what they do?

September 2, 2022
by Krissy Waite
Salamander skydiving Screen shot from video by Roxanne Makasdjian/Christian Brown

You’ve heard of flying squirrels, but what about flying salamanders? New research out of Berkeley, published in Current Biology, examined the surprising flying abilities of the wandering salamander—Aneides vagrans—a species that lives almost exclusively in the crowns of California’s coastal redwoods, more than 100 feet off the forest floor.  

High-speed videos of the salamanders in free fall showed a remarkable ability to turn, flip, and steer while “parachuting” downward from heights of up to 65.5 feet. The salamanders, which lack webbing or skin flaps to help them, were also observed gliding through the forest canopy. 

Gliding and parachuting are not the same. While parachuting, the salamanders spread their limbs and hold their tails erect. In this position, they can slow a vertical fall by 10 percent. When gliding, the amphibians undulate their tails and torsos to slightly decrease their angle of descent. 

Study coauthor Robert Dudley, Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight, told Berkeley News that the salamanders’ ability to control their fall is surprising given their otherwise sluggish nature. “[F]light control is all about rapid response to dynamic visual cues and being able to target and orient and change your body position,” Dudley said. 

Lead author Christian Brown, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Florida, and Berkeley grad student Erik Sathe used a wind tunnel to compare the flying abilities of A. vagrans with three other California salamanders—A. lugubris, Ensatina eschscholtzii, and A. flavipunctatus. The arboreal species exhibited much better skydiving abilities.

 Brown believes the aerial skills of A. vagrans originally evolved as a survival method, but eventually became its preferred method of descent.

“Why walk back down?” said Brown. “You’ve burned all your energy, you’re a little five-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.”

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