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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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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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