Salamander’s ability to ‘parachute’ in California’s redwood forests discovered by scientists

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In the tops of the tallest trees in the world, an amphibian has carved out an unlikely niche.

The wandering salamander, more closely related to a frog than the lizards it resembles, feeds on small invertebrates in the canopies of California’s giant sequoias, nearly 100 meters above the forest floor.

But living so high off the ground comes with a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is the downfall.

Rather than hang on for dear life, scientists observed the wandering salamander – Vagrans aneids — jumping from canopies when disturbed.

Now they figured out how the salamander avoids crashing when it hits the ground.

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Finding the answer involved taking a bunch of salamanders of five different species and a mini wind tunnel – a shrunken version of the type you might see skydivers training in.

The experiment from there, as you can probably imagine, was quite simple – throw the salamanders into the wind tunnel and watch.

The wandering salamander, which measures about 10 centimeters from snout to tail, and another canopy-dwelling species “parachuted” in much the same way as a skydiver – spreading their limbs apart and slowing and controlling their descent.

The researchers published their results in Current biology this week.

“Paratrooper” salamanders

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Although the trick has been seen in some frogs, it’s a surprising first for salamanders, according to amphibian expert Jodi Rowley of the Australian Museum and UNSW, who was not involved. looking.

“It surprised me that there was a species of salamander that actually did this,” Dr Rowley said.

In 2012, Dr Rowley and his colleagues discovered a new species of flying frog in Vietnam – Helen’s Tree Frog – named after Dr Rowley’s mother.

“My colleagues and I discovered Helen’s Tree Frog, which is one of this crazy little group of flying frogs,” she said.

“[The frogs have] taken to another level, they’ve got these huge parachute feet, they’re webbed, and they’re awesome – they’re falling out of trees. »

But unlike some frogs, salamanders don’t have any particularly obvious physical adaptations that might help them glide, other than slightly larger pads, according to lead study author Christian Brown of the University of South Florida.

“These salamanders were not only able to slow themselves down, but were also able to use precise pitch, roll and yaw control to maintain an upright body posture, execute banked turns and glide horizontally,” he said. in a press release.

“This level of air traffic control was unexpected because these salamanders do not appear to possess any outstanding air traffic control characteristics.”

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Not only were they able to control their fall, but through subtle movements of their tails and limbs, they were able to glide in the direction, Mr Brown said.

“Most surprising to us was the exquisite level of control that the more arboreal salamanders had in the vertical wind tunnel,” the doctoral student said.

“The wandering salamanders were particularly adept and seemed to instinctively deploy skydiving postures upon first contact with the air current.”

The researchers believe the salamanders likely use this skill to glide toward their tree trunk, rather than falling to the forest floor below.

The salamanders were able to slow their descent by up to 10%.

In all 45 trials, the wandering salamander was observed to “parachute”, closely followed by the tree salamander, which slowed its descent on 40 out of 45 times.

The tree salamander inhabits small oak trees.

But the Ensatina fire salamander showed little propensity for flight, managing to slow its fall just three times.

Most of the time, he seemed to “flab” his limbs and demonstrated very little control when falling.

Given that there are over 7,000 species of amphibians, Dr Rowley said it’s a fairly rare trait to have evolved in just a few species. And it’s likely the skill was developed the hard way.

“It would be life pressure,” Dr Rowley said.

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