10 Fantastic Animals That Fly Without Wings
Many animals find ways to fly considerable distances. These include fish, squid, spiders and snakes, as well as the more familiar birds, bats and insects.
The reasons range from a desperate attempt to escape from predators, to a desire to discover new places to live and breed.
A few of the creatures on this page are sure to surprise you.
It was tempting to include creatures like the jumping spider, pictured below. Jumping spiders can leap over objects fifty times their own body length. A notable achievement!
Eventually, I settled for only including those animals that exploit aerodynamics to get where they want to go.
Jumping spiders are impressive but it is the ballooning spiders that set the flight records.
Ballooning spiders can travel thousands of miles through the air. They routinely turn up in Antarctica, the most remote place on the planet. They are often the first creatures to reach those new volcanic islands that pop up out of the oceans from time to time.
The Crab Spider, (Xysticus species), pictured above, is a good example of a ballooning spider that can fly long distances.
The spider climbs to the top of a rock or plant and waits for a gust of wind. It then shoots out a jet of gossamer (very fine, silk-like material usually used to make a web). This catches an air current and lifts the spider skyward.
Often the webs that the spiders produce are similar to open parachutes or balloons. These fill with air and produce a large surface area to catch the wind.
If you go out at the right time of day in spider-friendly country, you can see thousands of spiders taking to the air in this way. Often the spiders are trying to travel just a few hundred meters to drop in on unsuspecting prey, but in a strong wind they travel much further.
World records for spider ballooning include the ability to fly for 25 days without food and rise to heights of over two miles above ground.
Are Flying Spiders Always a Good Thing?
Not if your town is suddenly taken over by spiders that drop from the sky.
Residents in Goulburn, Australia recently woke to discover their town covered with snow-like webs that got in their hair and food with unpleasant results.
Sheep stopped eating and dogs got tetchy, too, apparently.
Japanese fishermen say that airborne neon squid (Ommastrephes bartramii) are a regular sight on their voyages but few scientists have studied the phenomenon.
The motive to fly seems to be the same one that drives fish to take to the air. A big predator like a shark appears and the squid confuse and baffle their pursuer by jumping clean out of the predator's world.
These squid can glide for about twenty meters after using a kind of jet propulsion to get airborne. Big muscles squeeze high pressure water through a narrow opening and whoosh; they take off like a bottle rocket.
The presence of wing-like fin lobes at the rear end of the squid plus feeding apparatus that can be used as stabilizers, aid the squid in the air.
Jumbo Flying Squid
Humboldt Squid (Dosidicus gigas) in the Eastern Pacific also fly occasionally. These are big creatures and can knock you clean out of a boat if you are unlucky.
Flying fish are a common sight for seafarers and can be found in all the oceans of the world.
Usually they live near the surface of the water and are often seen flying in shoals as they flee from predators.
Species like the tropical two-wing flying fish (Exocoetus volitans), pictured below, are highly evolved to glide. The fish's backbone is partly fused together to make it very rigid and the fins are very large and stabilized by powerful muscles.
How Far can a Flying Fish Fly?
There are some impressive records. If flying fish can catch a favorable wind they can glide for up to four hundred meters, though usually they fly for about fifty.
Speeds of 70 kpm (40 mph) are not uncommon. This would get them a speeding ticket in most towns.
Flsh have been seen flying as high as 6 meters (nearly twenty feet), more than enough to fly over a single-storey house.
How long has all this been going on?
Flying fish have been around for a very long time. The fossil below is of an extinct species called Thoracopterus magnificus. It was common in the time of the dinosaurs, around 250 million years ago.
Animals that live in forest trees can have trouble getting about. The forest floor is a dangerous place, especially for animals like squirrels. Many predators lurk in the undergrowth.
It is also a lot of hard, energy-consuming work to climb down to the ground and then up again to reach a fruit or insect snack in the next tree.
Flying squirrels have the perfect solution. They glide from tree to tree to get the best meal while gravity-bound predators can only look on in awe. Skin flaps between the body and the animals' limbs produce a wing-like surface that the squirrel controls expertly.
The video above shows just how much control a flying squirrel has. Flying squirrels can make ninety degree turns in the air and land effortlessly by using their skin folds like the flaps on an aircraft to brake before impact.
All flying squirrels come from the family, Sciuridae. Old World species can be found in places like India, China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The wonderfully named, hairy footed flying squirrel (Belomys pearsonii), pictured below, lives in Taiwan.
New World Flying Squirrels
There are two kinds of flying squirrel found in North America. Both belong to the genus, Glaucomys.
The Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), pictured above, likes conifer forests and can be found as far North as Alaska (see map below).
The Southern flying squirrel lives more in deciduous forests in the Eastern half of the US from the Canadian border to East Texas and Florida.
Colugos or 'Flying Lemur'
Colugos are very rare animals but worth mentioning because they are especially well suited to gliding. They have huge and complex skin flaps between their limbs that allow them to control flights expertly and travel long distances.
They are found in Southeast Asia.
Often they are called 'flying lemurs' because of their appearance, They are not related to true lemurs which are only found in Madagascar.
Possums are marsupials, a kind of mammal that includes kangaroos and wallabies. There are several species capable of gliding, including sugar gliders that are sometimes kept as pets.
All gliding possums come from Australia or New Zealand. Many, sadly, have become endangered species as their forest homes are cut down.
Flying snakes of the Chrysopelea genus are deliberate and skilled gliders that exploit the unpromising shape of their bodies to maximum effect.
On the whole, long thin objects like snakes do not fly well, but these snakes adopt a j-shape and undulate their bodies to maximize the lift that comes when air flows over a concave surface. Boomerangs fly in a similar way.
Flying snakes are careful to choose their desired landing spot before launching themselves into the air and they are surprisingly accurate.
These snakes are found across South East Asia and Southern China. They are venomous but only dangerous to small animal prey.
Scientists have studied this unusual kind of flight to help develop flying robots. I sort of hope this does not work out.