Watch these ‘skydiving’ salamanders that parachute out of California redwood trees

A salamander that lives high up in the California coastal redwoods has some pretty impressive aerial skills, a UC Berkeley study has found.

The wandering salamander, or Aneides vagrans, has evolved in its ability to glide, parachute and move through the air from tree to tree, in a manner similar to flying squirrels and gliding geckos and frogs, according to the paper published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

Experts believe the amphibians, which call towering coastal redwoods of Northern California home, have adapted to their dangerously high habitats with these skills that come in handy if they fall. It also allows them to stay off the ground and avoid predators.

Christian Brown, a University of South Florida doctoral candidate who is first author of the joint paper with UC Berkeley researchers, said in a press release that the salamanders can turn, flip themselves over and “pump their tail up and down to make horizontal maneuvers. ”

“While they’re parachuting, they have an exquisite amount of maneuverable control,” he said.

Brown said Sunday that the wandering salamander is well known to scientists, but unless you live among the upstate coastal redwood forests, you’re never likely to encounter one “due to its limited range and canopy niche.”

A salamander living in California coastal redwoods has some impressive aerial skills, a UC Berkeley study has found.  The wandering salamander has evolved in its ability to glide, parachute and move through the air from tree to tree.  The creature is seen in a video frame from UC Berkeley.

A salamander living in California coastal redwoods has some impressive aerial skills, a UC Berkeley study has found. The wandering salamander has evolved in its ability to glide, parachute and move through the air from tree to tree. The creature is seen in a video frame from UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley

“Prior to this research, aerial behaviors had not been described in any salamander species,” he told The Chronicle Sunday in an email. “Aerial righting, parachuting, gliding and maneuvering are all newly reported behaviors for arboreal lungless salamanders.”

Brown and UC Berkeley researchers put the creature’s fascinating skills to the test by setting up a wind tunnel and nudging salamanders off a perch to see how they would react. UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Sathe and Brown compared the behavior of the wandering salamander to that of three other species that are native to Northern California.

They found the wandering salamander was the most skilled at “skydiving.”

“What struck me when I first saw the videos is that they (the salamanders) are so smooth — there’s no discontinuity or noise in their motions; they’re just totally surfing in the air,” said Robert Dudley, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and an expert on animal flight, in the press release.

He added that this behavior is “deeply embedded in their motor response” and that it’s not “passive parachuting,” but actually gliding.

In the comparison, a species known as the arboreal salamander (A. lugubris), which lives in shorter trees, was next best at maneuvering in the air. Two other salamander species — the forest floor-dwelling Ensatina eschscholtzi and A. flavipunctatus, which sometimes climbs trees — “flailed ineffectively” in the wind tunnel, and never glided like the other species, according to the press release.

A closeup of a wandering salamander, or Aneides vagrans on a tree.  UC Berkeley researchers used a wind tunnel to document how the species in Northern California glides and parachutes through the air.

A closeup of a wandering salamander, or Aneides vagrans on a tree. UC Berkeley researchers used a wind tunnel to document how the species in Northern California glides and parachutes through the air.

Provided by UC Berkeley

Brown said there are hundreds of salamander species across the global that can climb trees and cave walls and live in high-up places, so it’s possible there could be others that are able to control their bodies when falling.

The researchers used a high-speed video camera to film the salamanders, and analyzed the footage to figure out how they would function in their natural environment. The amphibians fell at a steep angle, the release said, but given the spacing between branches and redwood crowns, Brown and Dudley noticed that this would usually be sufficient for them to reach a branch or trunk without plummeting to the ground. They found the “skydiving” movement would lower the free-fall speed by about 10%.

Brown encountered these salamanders while working in Humboldt and Del Norte counties with nonprofit and university conservation groups that mark and track the animals that live in the redwood canopy, primarily in old-growth forest some 150 feet off the ground.

He said when he picked them up, they would immediately jump out of his hands, which was particularly interesting considering how high up they live.

The fact that a “charismatic salamander” that can glide, parachute and move through the air lives up in redwood trees is fascinating in itself, Brown said. He said it’s also crucial for people to learn and appreciate the endangered world in which the salamanders live.

“I’d love for this discovery to highlight the fact that, while great advances in protecting and restoring redwood forests have been made on the ground, scientists have barely scratched the surface in studying the redwood canopy ecosystem and the unique fauna it has shaped through evolutionary time,” he said. “With the climate changing at an unprecedented rate, it’s vitally important that we collect more data on animals like wandering salamanders so we may better understand, protect and preserve this delicate ecosystem.”

Kellie Hwang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kellie.hwang@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @KellieHwang

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