Scientists this week have used high tech rucksacks to discover the secrets of exactly how an unusual type of mammal makes its way through the rainforests of Southeast Asia – by making a parachute out of the flaps of skin stretched out between their arms, legs and tail.
These creatures are sometimes called flying lemurs, even though they aren’t actually lemurs but in fact the closest living relatives to primates, and they don’t actually fly but they glide – they are also known as colugos. During the day, you can see colugos as motionless dark lumps clinging to tree trunks, but as soon as night falls they climb up high into the canopy and launch themselves into the air, gracefully gliding towards another tree trunk which can be up to a hundred metres away, turning to avoid obstacles in the way and performing skilful acrobatics in midair.
As you might imagine, studying colugo flight is quite a challenge in dense tropical forests. But now a team of scientists from the US, Singapore and the UK, have cracked this problem by attaching small sensors to colugo’s backs, which contain a small motion-detecting device similar to the ones used inside Nintendo Wii consoles. And along with a flash hard drive to store data, all sorts of information about the flight of the colugo were recorded.
And so for the first time, Greg Byrnes and his colleagues have discovered that these gliding mammals use the skin membrane, called a patagium, like a parachute, and that the longer they fall, the more time they have to control their gliding path and the softer the landing. They also found, that a bit like a falling cat, colugos adjust their posture as they glide to make sure they land on all four limbs to absorb the impact.
We’ve all heard of bingo wings, but that is rather cool story of unpicking one of nature’s marvellous secrets.