Sunday 2 October 2011

It'a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a... Frog?

Image source
It's not just birds, bats and insects that can take to the air and soar, flitter or buzz to their heart's content. Powered flight is a wonderful achievement, and we humans have spent a huge amount of time and resources to be able to partake in its delights.

There are many other animals in the world who give flight a go. Most only reach gliding, allowing them to extend jumping distance and avoid the usual "plummet to your untimely death" consequence.

Flying Squirrels are one of these. They really are squirrels, who use a membrane attached from wrist to ankle to gain lift as they leap from tree to tree. A long, furry tail works as a stabiliser.

They are nocturnal omnivores, mostly from Asia but with a few in Europe and North America. The biggest one can reach 60 cm (2 ft) in length excluding tail, most are substantially smaller. Their glides can go on for a distance of some 90 metres (425 feet).

Image: Comfortably Gruntled via Flickr
Sugar Glider
It's adorable! The Sweetie-pie Glider, surely? It also looks a lot like the Flying Squirrel but it's actually a Gliding Possum, which means it's a marsupial. As you know, a marsupial and a rodent are so distantly related that any more distance would make one or the other lose the capacity to be furry and cute entirely.

These Possums have the same big eyes, big ears and wrist-to-ankle membrane for nocturnal leaps in the trees in search of insects, nectar and all sorts of other foods. The Sugar Glider has the widest distribution, ranging from east and north Australia and up into nearby New Guinea. The other species have smaller territories within the same lands.

Sugar Gliders are about 15 cm (5 in) head and body length with an equally long tail, while other Gliding Possums are twice that. The smallest is the size of a small mouse with its membrane only going from elbow to knee. It can still glide for some 25 metres (82 feet), though! The other, bigger ones can travel up to some 150 m (490 ft) in a single bound.

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With all the spectral, repulsive beauty of a bat, the spindly limbed Colugo is sometimes known as the Flying Lemur, although Gliding Non-lemur would be more appropriate.

They are nocturnal, herbivorous inhabitants of south-east Asian forests and are more "built for gliding" than any other mammal. Their membrane isn't wrist-to-ankle, it's finger tip to toe tip to tail tip and back again. There's even webbing between the fingers and the toes AND from shoulder blade to front paws.

Spread out for gliding they look like they've gone SPLAT! against the windshield of a fast moving car.

It was long thought that the Colugo may be an ancestor to bats, but it seems they are more closely related to primates. Gliding Almost-a-lemur, perhaps. They don't have opposable thumbs or much strength in those weedy limbs so they aren't great climbers. Taking to the air they can travel 70 metres (230 feet) with minimal loss in height.

I reckon they could go much further if we really put them to the test, though.

Image: Tim Laman, National Geographic
Flying Frog
There are thousands of Flying Frogs all over the tropical world. As with the mammals, gliding is a marvellous way for them to glorify mere jumping from tree to tree. Indeed, a Flying Frog is simply any frog that can glide, and they all seem to be tree frogs since other habitats probably wouldn't warrant such abilities.

Gliding is basically going more across than down, while going more down than across is called parachuting. Eventually you're just going down, which is called falling. It's also often known as "bad" or "$#@£".

Flying Frogs have big feet with long toes and webbing in between. They also have flaps of skin on their arms and legs and are simply lighter than other frogs their size. Lots of tree frogs have these kinds of adaptations and some have enough to glide, others only to parachute.

It's a great skill for them either way, since they only go to the floor for purposes of breeding. The rest of their time is spent eating insects at night.

Flying Gecko
Flying Geckos come from southeast Asia. They also have webbed feet like the Flying Frogs but instead of really massive feet they have even more flaps of skin along their legs, body and tail. The tail is also flattened to help out even more.

These lizards have amazing camouflage and those flaps of skin help break up their outline to make them even more difficult to see. It just so happens that this extravagant disguise also enables them to leap from danger if it doesn't work so well.

Image: smallislander via Flickr
Flying Dragon
We're shifting away from bits of skin between limbs and digits now - Flying Dragons, or Draco, are rather more committed to this gliding craze. They still use extra skin, but this time it's attached to extra long ribs. Ribs! They have ribs sticking out of their sides! Ouch!

Just like the Flying Gecko these Dragons are Asian, tree dwelling lizards with cryptic colours for some remarkable camouflage. Their wing-type-things are brightly coloured, perhaps for communication. It is therefore important to note that those sticky-out ribs can be retracted, the colourful wings folded up and the whole animal permitted to disappear against the surface of their chosen tree.

Apparently they can glide a distance of some 9 metres (30 feet).

Image: Jake Socha, National Geographic
Flying Snake
Let's see what we can do without limb or digits of any kind at all! Flying Snakes are, yet again, south and southeast Asian tree dwellers.

To glide, they first climb to the edge of a branch and dangle off it. They then push themselves off using the tail end, something that would normally be called jumping but it doesn't have legs so...

Now, they can't stand up straight but they can pull their stomach in. They do that to such an extant that they become concave, rather like a frisbee. They undulate their body as they go and can even use this motion to direct their flight!

Flying Snakes range between 60 and 120 cm (2 and 4 ft) in length. The smaller ones are the better gliders, and one can travel some 100 m (330 ft).

Image: Troy Bartlett, Nature Closeups
Gliding Ant
Yet ANOTHER tree dwelling glider! These trees have a lot to answer for! But Gliding Ants don't glide from tree to tree, they actually do it to make sure they stay on the very SAME tree.

You see, Gliding Ants nest and forage high up in the canopy. If they lose their footing and fall straight to the ground they are at risk of getting lost or eaten. The answer is to direct their fall toward their home tree's trunk so that they can run straight back up.

There are lots of different kinds of Gliding Ant and lots of tree ants can't glide. Some of the gliders have legs that are slightly flattened and heads with sticky-out bits to achieve more lift, others are more normal looking but seem to be just as good at gliding.

These ants are active during the day and, should they fall, use their eyesight to locate the tree they want to glide to. As they fall, they push their legs upward above their body and then use their legs and abdomen to make a turn toward the tree trunk.

This isn't a graceful, soft landing. They turn so much that they hit the trunk just about head on. Sometimes they bounce straight off, but then they just try again!

Image: Wikipedia
After all those tree living animals it's time to look at an actual tree! The Alsomitra is a vine that grows in those islands between China and Australia. They go right the way up into the canopy and develop bell shaped fruit that are some 30 cm (1 ft) in diameter.

Each fruit will have about 400 seeds attached to paper thin gliding apparatus. The whole thing looks quite a lot like one of those Stealth Bombers.

Peeling away from the fruit, they first plunge toward the ground. This acceleration provides them with enough lift to gain height, which slows them down so much that they begin to fall and accelerate again.

This process continues until the seed lands. (err... obviously) Gusts of wind can push them even further, such that they can eventually go hundreds of metres away from the parent tree!

This is surely the best paper airplane ever. I remember my best efforts (which were not dissimilar to this design). They went straight across the road and landed in the other guy's garage! Others got stuck in a palm tree.

Flying Fish
We now firmly leave all trees behind us. Flying Fish are found in tropical and subtropical oceans across the world. Their gliding is used to escape predators - no matter how odd a fish flying through the air may seem to you, other fish are sure to find it even more unexpected.

It's hard work for a fish to leave the water. Flying Fish may have to move their tail up to 70 times per second to break through the surface. And I thought forcing myself to leave a nice, warm bath was difficult!

Once out, they spread out their gigantic pectoral fins and soar between the sky and the deep blue sea. Ahh!

They usually land... "land" some 50 metres (160 feet) later, but they can occasionally go much further. If they're not ready to go back home yet they can splash their tail on the water when they descend, pushing themselves back up for more gliding time. Updrafts can give them a real boost, too.

Apparently the maximum distance of a glide is 400 m (1,300 ft), speed over 70 km/h (43 mph) and altitude up to 6 m (20 ft) above the sea. Not bad for a fish that's some 45 cm (18 in) long at most! Not bad for a fish...

Image source
Flying Squid
There are many anecdotes of squid leaping out of the sea and gliding much like the Flying Fish, but actual evidence is scant. It seems that they use jet propulsion to get airborne, just as they do for getting around in their usual, watery home. From there it gets more complicated.

Some seem to rely on a really almighty squirt of water to just get into the air and go as far as they can. Others appear to arrange their tentacles in ways that may well increase lift. The fins on the mantle may be more important as stabilisers than wings, but there are reports of squid actually flapping them. Some even appear to jet some more while in flight, perhaps boosting them along.

It's all very strange, but it might actually be rather common. Perhaps squid have been launching themselves into the air like soft torpedoes this entire time and barely anyone noticed.


Who knows? Perhaps these squid will really take to this flight malarky? They might even take us full circle and take up residence in the forests of southeast Asia, gliding from tree to tree.


Anonymous said...

Sugar Gliders are one of my favorite creatures of all time. I can barely handle the cuteness. I considered getting one as a pet until a friend of mine did...and had some troubles with it.

Joseph JG said...

Sugar Gliders are lovely, aren't they? It's so cool that your friend had one as a pet! I can imagine they could be troublesome, though. Maybe not as troublesome as the first pet wolves, but still...

TexWisGirl said...

sugar gliders are big 'fad' pets here in the states, but i do believe folks get them, then can't handle their nocturnal nature. sad, really.

my favorite of all of these critters is that flying gecko. SO CUTE!!!

Joseph JG said...

I know what you mean about that gecko! It looks like he has little mittens on and is jumping into the arms of someone he loves!

Crunchy said...

I'm really, really glad there aren't any spiders on this list.


Joseph JG said...

I'm sure they're working on it!

Crunchy said...

Come to think of it, some species of spider can fly. Their babies put out long strands of web, which can catch the wind and carry them far, far away (and directly into my living room).

Joseph JG said...

Ah, of course! But I'm sure what we're really worried about is one of those big tarantulas flying through the air to catch birds in flight. Then it'll be a proper bird-eating spider.

Anonymous said...

Wow, squid! I am sure they will be the flight pioneers of the animal kingdom - because their jet power is like rocket engines! They are just getting ready to break the sound barrier like the Bell X-1... all of this is top secret so it is obvious that we do not know much about their... research.

Joseph JG said...

Ha! Yeh, those squid are definitely holding on to some secrets...

Unknown said...

Sugar Gliders also have one of the most terrifying penises of the animal kingdom.

Joseph JG said...

Bloody hell it looks like Satan's pitchfork!

BK said...

Another animal that glides; some primates (sifakas and sakis)

Joseph JG said...

Gosh, this gliding act is really catching on!