Science Snapshot: Free Fallin’ Salamanders

Arboreal salamanders use skydiving techniques to avoid smashing to the ground after a fall.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Many tree-dwelling species have adapted features and behaviors that help them stay high above the ground. Though wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans) live about 45 meters (150 feet) in the air, the amphibians sometimes need to make a quick escape from predators without plummeting to an untimely death. According to a study published this week in Current Biology, these salamanders are able to contort themselves into positions that can slow down their descent and allow them to glide to safety.

Through the use of a wind tunnel, the researchers in the US were able to show that, during a fall, salamanders can flatten themselves out to mimic a parachute and reduce falling speeds up to 10 percent. Their limbs and tail aid their aerial acrobatics by steering them as they try to glide back toward the safety of a tree.