7 Animals You Didn't Know Could Catch Some Air

A Sri Lankan flying snake. Image credit: Gihan Jayaweera via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Taking to the skies isn’t something only animals with wings (or planes) can do. Sure, birds, bats, pterosaurs and insects mastered sustained powered flight, but lots of other creatures can also get some serious air time by gliding, parachuting, or using other methods. You’ve probably heard of flying fish and flying squirrels, but here are seven other aeronautical animals that might surprise you.

1. BALLOONING SPIDERS

Many kinds of spiders use a behavior called “ballooning” or “kiting” to get airborne. They spin fine strands of silk into the air and then ride them up, up and away. Usually, they only travel a few feet, but can go much further—they’ve been found landing on ships in the middle of the open ocean and discovered in air samples collected by atmospheric data balloons. For a long time, scientists thought the spiders were just catching breezes or being carried by thermal currents. A few years ago, though, physicist Peter Gorham showed that electrostatic forces could provide the lift, helping explain how spiders can still take flight when there’s little to no wind.

2. GLIDING FROGS

Some frogs aren’t content to simply swim and hop. They go for the whole water, land, and air trifecta by using webbing between their toes and flaps of skin on their limbs to parachute—and in some cases glide—through the air after a leap off a branch. There are “flying frogs” in a few genera, but the most well known are the rhacophorids like Wallace's flying frog and the Malabar gliding frog. These species spend most of their time in trees and glide to quickly move to the ponds they use for breeding.

3. FLYING SNAKES

The ancient Mesoamericans had a deity called Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent.” On the other side of the world, there’s a real snake—actually, a few of them—that fly, no feathers needed. The five snakes in the genus Chrysopelia, found throughout Southeast Asia, can all glide for a good 300 feet after dropping from tree branches. (You can see one, the Sri Lankan flying snake, in the top image.) Their trick is that they flatten their bodies out, doubling their width and changing their shape from a rough circle to a concave, frisbee-like form. Once they’re in the air, the snakes twist their bodies into an S shape and wiggle side to side, basically slithering mid-air, to control their flight.

4. AERONAUTIC COLUGOS

Colugos are sometimes called flying lemurs, but that’s a misnomer on two counts. First, they’re not lemurs—these mammals are the sole members of the order Dermoptera, which split off from the primates tens of millions of years ago. Second, they don’t fly, but glide. They do that pretty well, thanks to thin, lightweight bones and an expansive membrane that runs from shoulder to front paw to back paw to tail on both sides of their body. They’re considered the most skilled gliders among mammals and can even take on passengers: Mother colugos regularly glide from tree to tree, covering distances of a few hundred feet, with their babies clinging to their bellies.

5. PARACHUTING ANTS

Some ants fly using wings, but even some of those without them aren’t earthbound. There are gliding ants in several genera, but the first known to scientists was Cephalotes atratus, sometimes called the turtle ant. In 2005, ecologist Stephen Yanoviak was climbing a tree in the Peruvian rainforest to study mosquitoes and brushed away a few of these ants that were bothering him. They kept coming back, though, and Yanoviak soon figured out that they were using a  “directed aerial descent” to return to the tree they were knocked from and climb back to where they started. After falling a few meters, the ants stretch their wide legs and head out to catch air like a parachute and slow themselves down, then glide while twisting around to reorient themselves before grabbing onto a tree trunk.

6. JETTING SQUID

Flying squid are odd aeronauts. Unlike the other critters on this list, their flights are powered, but unlike like birds and bats, the power doesn’t come from flapping wings. Instead, flying squid (Todarodes pacificus) draw water into their mantles (the part of the body behind the head) and then shoot it out in a powerful jet that can launch them out of the water and around 100 feet through the air, where their fins and tentacles provide stability.

7. WINGED-ISH COELUROSAURAVUS

Nobu Tamura via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

For a while, even scientists didn’t realize this extinct reptile, which lived roughly 260 million years ago, could glide. When the first specimen was discovered, researchers found several long rod-like bones near the rib cage and assumed they were pieces of fish fins that gotten mixed in with the skeleton. Other scientists later figured out that the bones actually belonged to Coelurosauravus, but weren’t part of its internal skeleton. Instead, they were osteoderms, bony deposits that develop in the skin. In most animals, osteoderms form scales or plates, but in Coelurosauravus, they made something more like a wing and supported a membrane of skin that allowed it to glide.

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13 Facts About Opossums
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Opossums, which include the roughly 100 species in the order Didelphimorphia, are some of the most misunderstood animals in the Americas. They’re often thought of as dimwitted, dirty creatures whose most impressive trick is acting like roadkill. The truth is just the opposite: Opossums are smarter, cleaner, and more beneficial to humans than many of their woodland neighbors. Read on for more opossum facts.

1. OPOSSUMS AND POSSUMS AREN’T THE SAME ANIMAL.

In North America, opossum and possum describe the same thing, but in Australia the word possum refers to a completely different animal. Among the most well known of their respective types are the Virginia opossum and the brushtail possum. Both are small to medium sized, omnivorous marsupials, but the similarities end there. The possum looks like a cute cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla and it belongs to a different order than the North American mammal that shares (most of) its name. Despite the potential for confusion, possum is accepted as the shortened version of opossum in this part of the world (and if you see the word possum in this list, you can assume it’s referring to the animal from the Americas).

2. THEY’RE THE ONLY MARSUPIALS FOUND NORTH OF MEXICO.

Marsupials—mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches—are absent from much of the world, and in Canada and the United States opossums are the sole representatives of the group. Like other marsupials, mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped offspring (called joeys) that immediately crawl into a pouch where they live and nurse during their first months of life. Only once they’ve grown big and strong enough do they venture out, transitioning between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they mature into adults.

3. THEY CAN’T CHOOSE WHEN THEY PLAY DEAD.

Possum playing dead.
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Perhaps the most famous characteristic of the opossum is its tendency to play dead in front of predators. When the animal experiences intense fear in the face of danger, it seizes up and flops to the ground where it can remain for hours staring blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue. It’s an impressive defensive mechanism, but its effectiveness can’t be chalked up to the possum’s acting skills. Possums have no control over when they play dead or for how long they do it: The comatose-like state is an involuntary reaction triggered by stress.

4. AN OFFENSIVE ODOR SELLS THE PERFORMANCE.

A picture of a possum playing dead doesn’t really do it justice. To get the full experience, you need to be standing over to it to smell the putrid odor it emits when pretending to be a corpse. The smelly substance it secretes from its anus is just one more reason for foxes and bobcats to look for their dinner elsewhere.

5. THEY SLOW THE SPREAD OF LYME DISEASE.

Even if possums aren’t the cutest creatures in the forest, they should be a welcome addition to your backyard. Unlike other mammals that carry ticks, and therefore spread Lyme Disease, possums gobble up 90 percent of the ticks that attach to them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. That means the more possums that are in your area, the fewer ticks you’ll encounter.

6. THEIR MEMORIES ARE SURPRISINGLY SHARP.

Possum looking up at table.
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Opossums have impressive memories—at least when it comes to food. Researchers found that possums are better at remembering which runway led to a tasty treat than rats, cats, dogs, and pigs. They can also recall the smell of toxic substances up to a year after trying them.

7. THEY’RE IMMUNE TO MOST SNAKE VENOM.

While most animals look at a snake and see danger, a possum sees its next meal. The animals are immune to the venom of nearly every type of snake found in their native range, the one exception being the coral snake. Possums take advantage of this adaptation by chowing down on snakes on a regular basis.

Researchers have been trying to harvest possums’ antivenom powers for decades. A few years ago, a team of scientists made progress on this front when they recreated a peptide found in possums and and found that mice given the peptide and rattlesnake venom were successfully protected from the venom’s harmful effects.

8. THEY ALMOST NEVER GET RABIES.

While possums aren’t totally immune to rabies (a few cases have been documented), finding a specimen with the disease is extremely unlikely. Marsupials like possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America—in other words, their bodies don’t provide a suitable environment for the virus.

9. THEIR TAIL ACTS AS A FIFTH APPENDAGE.

Baby opossum hanging from a tree branch by its tail.
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Opossums are one of a handful of animals with prehensile tails. These appendages are sometimes used as an extra arm: They can carry grass and leaves for building nests or grip the sides of trees to provide extra stability while climbing. Baby possums can even use their tails to hang from branches upside down as they’re often depicted doing in cartoons. But it’s a myth that possums sleep this way: Their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a short amount of time.

10. THEY’RE CONSTANTLY SELF-GROOMING.

Thanks to their whole acting-and-smelling-like-a-corpse routine, opossums aren’t known as the most sanitary animals in nature. But they take cleanliness seriously: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife writes that possums, like housecats, use their tongue and paws to groom themselves frequently and thoroughly. Possums largely lack sweat glands, and this behavior is believed to help them cool down. It also has the added effect of rendering them odorless (when they’re not secreting stinky predator-repellant, that is).

11. THEIR EYES AREN’T TOTALLY BLACK.

Close-up on opossum's face.
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One of the opossum’s most recognizable features is its pair of opaque eyes. Opossum eyes do have whites and irises, but because their pupils are so large, their eyes appear completely black from a distance. The exaggerated pupil dilation is thought to help the nocturnal animals see after the sun goes down.

12. THEY’RE SOCIAL CREATURES.

It was long assumed that opossums like to keep to themselves, but a study published in the journal Biology Letters suggests they have a social side. Researchers at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil observed some possums in captivity sharing dens even if they weren’t mates. In one case, 13 white-eared opossums of various age groups were cohabiting the same space. The scientists suspect that male and female possums living in the wild may even build nests together as a way to trigger the female’s reproductive hormones.

13. THEIR REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS ARE COMPLICATED.

The way it gives birth and raises its young isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about the opossum's reproductive life. Females have two vaginal tracts and two uteri, and males in turn have a forked or bifurcated penis. This is fairly typical for marsupials, but when European colonizers first landed in North America centuries ago, they didn’t know what to make of the confusing genitalia. One explanation they came up with was that male opossums impregnated females through the nose.

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Hero Crayfish Cheats Death By Removing Its Own Claw to Escape Pot of Boiling Water
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There remains a perpetual debate over the ethical consequences of taking a crustacean and boiling it alive. In early 2018, Switzerland actually made it illegal to give living lobsters a scalding hot bath. (Instead, chefs are expected to stun them electronically before submersion.) Scientists can’t reach a conclusion over whether decapods feel pain—or if we can even define what that means for them.

While humans argue, some clawed sacrifices are taking action. A crayfish filmed by a Facebook user in China is making the internet rounds and being hailed as a hero after taking dramatic measures to escape a boiling pot of water.

In the footage, the crayfish appears to be unable to extricate its left appendage from a bubbling vat of doom. Rather than succumb, the crayfish uses its right claw to sever its compromised claw and scurry off. At 11 seconds, it’s the best summary of a Saw film possible.

“Juike,” the user who originally posted the video to the Weibo social media site, says he has taken the crafty invertebrate home and put him in an aquarium as a pet. The tiny survivalist may even regrow his lost limb, as crawfish are able to do, although it might not reach its former size.

Crayfish are in inherent danger of being turned into soup in China, where specialty restaurants devoted to their preparation are popping up. Some observers believe their popularity is due to diners having to step away from phones and social media in order to use both hands to peel away at their shells.

[h/t BBC]

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