Have you ever seen a lizard hurtling over your head? How about a frog sailing down from the tree tops? I’m not making these animals up. They belong to one of earth’s most astonishing groups of animals.
Gliders travel through the air, but they don’t fly. Instead, they glide. What’s the difference? Well, to get itself off the ground, a bird, bat, or insect has to generate a force called lift. A flying animal generates lift using its wings, which are attached to powerful flight muscles. These wings move and bend in complicated motions to counteract the force of gravity.
Gliding animals do not have muscle-powered wings. Instead, most gliding animals have special flaps or folds of skin called patagia. Like wings, the patagia generate lift—but only after the animal is already moving through the air.
When chased by a snake, a Draco lizard leaps from its tree. Instead of plunging to its death, it spreads out its rib cage into two elegant airfoils covered with skin. As air rushes over them, these airfoils—the patagia—generate lift to keep the lizard from falling straight down. The lizard does steadily descend toward earth, but it is also riding the air. It can change directions, pull a U-turn, and control where it wants to go. In the process it can travel hundreds of feet before landing on another tree or on the ground.
The patagia of Wallace’s frogs lie between their toes. These frogs usually live up in the trees, but when it is time to mate or lay eggs, they leap, spread out their toes, and glide to earth.
Earth’s most astonishing gliders may be five species of gliding snakes. These snakes don’t have patagia. Instead, they flatten out their bodies and “crawl” through the air. Scientists aren’t sure if the crawling motion helps generate lift, or if lift comes mainly from a snake’s flattened shape, but the animals can glide more than 100 feet before landing.
Most of earth’s gliding animals live in Southeast Asian rainforests, which are home to more than eighty species of gliding lizards, frogs, snakes, and mammals. In North America, we have only two gliding animals: Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t fly. They glide—and are adorably cute! Want to see one? Try shining a flashlight on a bird feeder at night!
A male Draco lizard extending his gular flag (throat flap) and patagi (wings). While not capable of powered flight Dracos often obtain lift in the course of their gliding flights. Glides as long as 200 feet have been recorded, Wikimedia
Wallace's frogs live almost exclusively in the trees, and leap and "fly" from tree to tree or to bushes. The membranes between their toes and loose skin flaps on their sides catch the air as they fall, helping them to glide, sometimes 50 feet or more, to a neighboring tree branch or even all the way to the ground. They also have oversized toe pads to help them land softly and stick to tree trunks. Wikimedia
Flying squirrels are able to glide from one tree to another with the aid of a patagium, a furry, parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. Their long tail provides stability in flight. Wikimedia
There are five recognized species of flying snake, found from western India to the Indonesian archipelago. They flatten out their bodies and parachute or glide using their ribs to become flat, and then they whip their bodies in a fast, rhythmic S-shape to stay airborne. Wikimedia
Illustrated with arresting photographs, Sneed B. Collard's Catching Air: Taking the Leap with Gliding Animals takes us around the world to learn why so many gliders live in Southeast Asia, and to find out why this gravity-defying ability has evolved in Draco lizards, snakes, and frogs as well as mammals. Why do gliders stop short of flying, how did bats make that final leap, and how did Homo sapiens bypass evolution to glide via wingsuits and hang gliders―or is that evolution in another guise?
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. "Meet Earth's Incredible Gliders." Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 11 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.