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7 Animals You Didn't Know Could Catch Some Air

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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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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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