How Salamanders Become Airborne
By Elizabeth Pennisi, staff writer for Science
Salamanders aren't known for their power thighs.
Yet some can put the best basketball players to shame, leaping six to eight
times their body height with just a flick of their bodies—or so it seemed. The
movement is actually more complicated, researchers reported . . . at the annual
meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology [in January 2014].
Leaping lizards and drop-shot basketball players
push down to get the push-off needed to become airborne, but salamander leg
muscles are tiny and their legs are spread out around them, so they can't push
off. By analyzing high-speed videos,
researchers at Northern Arizona University [Kiisa Nishikawa,
Regents’ Professor of Biology, and graduate student Anthony Hessel] discovered that, instead, the amphibian uses
a rear leg as a pivot point, planting it forward. It then bends the
body around the planted foot, essentially storing up the energy it will need to
jump. But instead of unbending in a simple "flick," it quickly shifts
that bend over the hips so they rotate away from the planted foot at a speed of
17 body lengths per second . . . . That action pulls the body forward and
throws the salamander over the planted foot, into the air. In bending, the
salamander shifts its center of mass out over the foot, giving it a better
grip. The animal uses this movement to escape danger. The salamander's leaps
demonstrate that even objects that lie flat on the ground can get into the air,
despite the lack of a means to push off, and could lead to the design of flat catapults.
of the videos is available at http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/01/video-salamander-flat-catapult.