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Researchers discover skydiving salamanders in California Redwoods

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Wandering salamander (Aneides vagrans) of the California Redwoods
University of South Florida doctoral candidate, Christian Brown

Researchers have discovered one species of salamander in the California Redwoods that has evolved a surprising skill to adapt to its environment: Skydiving.

They’re called “wandering salamanders.” UC Berkeley researchers and others have been marking and tracking the animals that live in the redwood canopies of California’s Humboldt and Del Norte counties for 20 years. Their behavior 150 feet off the ground is the subject of a new paper University of South Florida doctoral candidate Christian Brown just co- authored for the science journal Current Biology.

University of South Florida doctoral candidate, Christian Brown climbs a California Redwood to study behavior of the "Wandering Salamander"
Christian Brown

Brown told Science Daily, "They jump, and before they've even finished toeing off, they've got their forelimbs splayed out, and they're ready to go."

Inspired by a 2017 NatGeo docuseries that featured the salamanders, Brown set out to research their jumping more closely and look at aerial behaviors.

Brown and UC Berkeley graduate student Eric Sathe used a wind tunnel to compare the gliding and parachuting behavior of the “wandering salamander” with the abilities of three other salamander species native to Northern California. Brown thinks they may have developed these aerial skills to deal with falls, and that it is now part of their normal behavior.

University of South Florida doctoral candidate, Christian Brown conducting wind tunnel experiment with "Wandering Salamanders" coauthor of behavior study UC Berkeley graduate student Eric Sathe
Christian Brown

Brown is now conducting field research to identify how the behavior works.

He said, “Now we know they do parachute, and they do glide, we are not only interested in how that works in nature but how that works bio mechanically.”

Brown believes the “wandering salamander” can be a valuable symbol for forests nearly lost to logging.

Co-authors of the paper with Brown are UC Berkeley grad student Eric Sathe, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight Robert Dudley, and Stephen Deban, professor of integrative biology at the University of South Florida. The joint paper was published on May 23, 2022 in the journal Current Biology.

Check out this video of "wandering salamanders" in flight: https://youtu.be/tbLFbyjVLYY

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