When it comes to flying animals, we often think about the endless varieties of birds and perhaps bats, maybe even pterosaurs from the dinosaur age. But evolution and adaptation is full of surprises.
Indeed, you may not realise that flight has evolved in animals, enabling species such as fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to develop the ability to be airborne.
I’ll preface that, without getting too technical, by saying there’s a few varieties of flight; powered, unpowered and externally powered. But in our urban modern world, some of these will come as a surprise.
10 Wild Turkeys
We tend to associate turkeys more with Thanksgiving than the skies. Generally, whenever you see a turkey in the wild, it’s on land. So it may come as a surprise that wild turkeys can actually fly albeit only short distances. However, when they fly, they fly at considerable speed. In fact, Live Science claims that they can fly as quickly as 55 miles per hour which equates to almost 90 kilometres per hour.
The key thing is wild turkeys are arboreal, which means they roost in trees, so they’ve got to get up there somehow. Essentially, flying is more natural than climbing for these large birds from the genus Meleagris.
While wild turkeys can fly, those farmed for human consumption cannot. Farmers over time have bred them to have large breasts, which inhibit their ability to get off the ground.
9 Flying snakes
The concept of a flying snake may leave some people petrified, but these animals do exist, predominantly found in South-East Asia. The good news is their venom is typically only enough to harm small prey such as lizards, rodents, frogs and birds, not humans.
The University of Chicago released a paper on flying snakes in 2015 after a study and lead scientist Jake Socha, PhD, said: “Despite their lack of wing-like appendages, flying snakes are skilled aerial locomotors.”
Flying snake don’t fly like birds, but instead they glide by flattening their body into a “pseudo concave wing” C-shape whilst making wave-like lateral undulations which enables their steady flight. The University of Chicago study also confirmed smaller snakes fly further.
For what it’s worth, most flying snakes only grow to 3 or 4 feet in length.
8 Ballooning spiders
The concept of spiders ‘ballooning’ is one of the most creative in the animal world. It occurs in many species of light spiders, often the spiderlings. In essence, these arachnids have evolved to release silk threads which catch the wind like a parachute and make them airborne, much like kiting. It’s an externally powered method, which is unique.
While most ballooning spiders’ journeys are relatively short, some have been known to have travelled for hundreds of kilometres. They climb to their highest point and catch the wind with their silk strands. Its purpose is dispersal to move between locations although casualties are high.
There’s an infamous story from Australia’s Southern Tablelands in 2015 when millions of spiders mass ballooned, with the silk left behind making the countryside appear like it was snowing, which is pretty unusual Down Under.
7 Flying squid
It seems strange that a pelagic creature would fly but some members of the Ommastrephidae species, aka the aptly named flying squid, have evolved to do that. The most common variety is found in the waters off Japan.
Japanese researchers have claimed that the squid can glide for up to 30 metres and at 11.2 metres per second, similar to Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint pace. The report by Japanese researchers also said: “We have discovered that squid do not just jump out of water but have a highly developed flying posture.” These squid glide out of the water, rather than fly, using propulsion before spreading and extending their fins and arms into a vertical position which keeps them airborne.
Why do they do this? The theory is to avoid predators. Squid is often a key food source, so they need some defence.
6 Draco lizards
There’s something particularly cute about dracos, although that subsides a bit when they take flight. These tiny agamid lizards, related to iguanas, are capable of extending their elongated ribs and the connecting membranes to create wings, the patagia, which enables them to glide. They’ve also got a secondary flap on their neck to assist gliding.
It isn’t quite powered flight but for a 20cm lizard they can glide more than 50 metres, which is a fair distance relatively speaking! They fly in order to avoid predators on the forest floor, but also to find mates and meals. They are quite territorial too. They’ll often glide from tree to tree to protect their territory.
They are little and urgent yet effortless in movement, but to add to the cuteness, their wings are also brightly coloured.
5 Flying fish
There are 40 species of these marine fish which can actually fly, by propelling themselves out of the water and gliding. Similar to some of the aforementioned animals, flying fish use this method to escape predators but glide as opposed to flying like a bird or bat, despite having wing-like fins.
They’re commonly found in the Caribbean island nation of Barbados, which is known as “the land of the flying fish”. They’re generally found in tropical oceans and within 200m of the surface, hence their evolution to utilise the area above the water level.
A Japanese TV crew filmed a flying fish airborne besides a ferry for a world record 45 seconds, beating the previous record of 42 seconds, witnessed by American researchers in the 1920s. They can fly at speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour and cover distances of 400m utilising drafts off waves and beating the water surface with their tail fins to remain airborne.
4 Flying squirrels
National Geographic described these creatures as “living, breathing paper aeroplanes”. Flying squirrels cannot fly like a bird, but they instead glide utilising their “built-in parachute”, the patagium, which is a membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle and looks like a hang glider. Their long tail acts as a stabiliser and a brake, while they use their limbs for direction.
Flying squirrels glide from tree to tree within forests, to ensure they avoid the predators which occupy the forest floor. They can glide from anywhere from 40 to 150 metres.
Earlier this week bizarrely seven people were arrested and charged in an “organised elaborate enterprise” to smuggle flying squirrels in Florida with a view to selling them off as “exotic pets”.
3 Gliding ants
The spectacular thing about gliding ants is they are wingless, yet they have mastered a mode of flight. These arboreal insects have evolved to direct their fall from trees. The phenomenon of gliding ants is relatively newly discovered, with University of California biologists writing a paper on them in 2005.
Given their tree-bound existence, these ants have learned to find their way back to their original tree, if they fall, using visual cues. Biologists studied them to discover that they can turn 180 degrees in the air. Gliding ants come into tree trunks backwards, hitting them with their rear legs. Often they bounce off. It’s estimated there’s an 85% success rate of landing on the same tree trunk.
University of Texas insect ecologist Stephen P. Yanoviak said: “In Amazon forests, you really don’t want to fall out of your tree and in the water, because then you’re definitely dead. That’s what I think is the major evolutionary driving mechanism behind the behaviour.”
2 Chinese flying frog
Often also known as Blanford’s whipping frog, large treefrog or Denny’s whipping frog, these frogs are a relatively large tree-dwelling species. Despite their size, they’re able to achieve flight by gliding between trees. They do this with unique webbed feet and hands that act like parachutes, enabling them to manage a gradual downward airborne slant.
British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace stumbled across these frogs in the rainforests of Borneo in 1869 and wrote: “The toes (are) very long and fully webbed to their very extremity, so that when expanded they offered a surface much larger than that of the body.”
Gliding is an energy efficient mode of transport for these frogs, who don’t spend much time on the ground or in water. In fact they only really come down for breeding. Their arboreal behaviour has adapted their body incredibly, with visible differences to a normal frog.
There’s little known about these rays, collectively known as “devil rays”. However, what they are known for is their belly flops. Scientists sometimes refer to them as ocean acrobats.
These fish look like most rays, with large wing-like fins. They’re strong swimmers, usually in schools, and they use that power to propel themselves out of the water, often flipping or twirling in the air, before flopping back into the water. Typically they can only get around two metres out of the water, so it’s not exactly full flight, but it is uniquely curious behaviour all the while.
This odd activity is one that scientists haven’t been able to fully explain, although there is a theory it’s a way to stand out from the crowd within the school and attract a mate. It is mainly males who jump out of the water, although females do join in. The theory claims that those who impress the spectators with their leap and flop splash have the best chance of courting a mate.
About The Author: I am a Media/Communications professional and long-time Australian freelance journalist, having written for global publications including AAP, Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and many more. Follow me on Twitter @BenSomerford