Animal acrobats of the treetops

There they go!

Those furred acrobats move swiftly through the treetops, yet speed is just one of their amazing traits.

They twist and turn their way through the topmost branches as champion acrobats.

If humans could better observe the night roving flying squirrel, there is no doubt that more would appreciate the agility given this animal.

Here is a born acrobat that prefers the tallest treetops, bounding from one tree to another by leaps so remarkable that the action is much like flight.

Found in many parts of the earth, this acrobatic squirrel scrambles to the topmost branches and prepares to launch itself in space by gathering itself into a ball, feet together.

Then it leaps into the air with a tremendous spring, spreading out its hind feet at right angles to the body.

But something else is spread out, something that enables 'this furred acrobat to perform in an extraordinary way.

This is a loose lateral fold of skin on each side of its body, fastened fore and aft to the ankles.

So the flying squirrel soars through the air with the help of this parachute membrane.

As one would expect, it is not always a straight jump or glide.

Acrobatics with a parachute membrane

To change direction in mid-flight, this squirrel acrobat just manipulates its forearms.

If it decides to make a sudden left turn, it drops the left arm lower than the right.

Sometimes several turns are made in rapid successions.

Beautiful spiral glides are accomplished by holding the turn position.

Fancy acrobatics indeed!

But how about the landing?

Toward the end of its glide, this miniature acrobat is traveling fast and seems headed for a crash.

But suddenly it checks its speed with an upward sweep of its body and tail, and lands, softly and silently, spreadeagled on the trunk of another tree.

This ability to check speed is indeed important.

It never fails.

How far can these furred acrobats glide?

It depends largely on the height of the takeoff point.

Some easily cover 160 feet or more.

The record may well be 300 feet, attained when one glided down a steep hillside.

It does not take long for baby flying squirrels to get into the acrobatic act.

At the age of six weeks they are doing limited gliding.

By eight weeks they can execute 90-degree turns, lateral loops and other fancy maneuvers characteristic of the older performers.

Out of pure enjoyment these furred acrobats sometimes cavort in the moonlight in a game of aerial follow-the-leader.

But how do they make big jumps and yet land safely even on the darkest nights?

Their eyes are important, but there is some possibility that they have a sonar system similar to the one for the bats; for flying squirrels emit, during a glide, sounds exceeding the upper limit of frequencies heard by human ears.

And for an added safety feature certain flying squirrels of Africa have scales beneath their tails-an anti-skid device for safe landings.

In Australia the popularly called “flying squirrels” or “gliders” are not really squirrels but are flying phalangers.

These acrobatic marsupials resemble the flying squirrels because of the gliding membrane, enabling them to leap from bough to bough, covering 100 feet, the largest of them being able to leap 200 feet or more.

When these furred acrobats are in action their outline looks remarkably like an exaggerated sweptwing jet plane.

Flying phalangers come in a number of different sizes, one of them being the smallest known parachuting mammal.

About equal in size to a mouse, this miniature acrobat is named, of course, Acrobates! 

The strangest of the furred acrobats is the cobego or flying lemur of the East Indies, a long-limbed, large-clawed, foxheaded animal that sleeps hanging upside down.

This animal an unusual parachute membrane that continues all the way from the neck to the very tip of the long tail!

One observer of this singular animal said:

“Words can scarcely describe that jungle oddity, the flying lemur. Imagine, if you can, a cat-sized animal hanging slothlike from the limb of some jungle tree, resembling a giant tropical fruit but covered with silky, soft brown fur splotched here and there with yellowish white. Suddenly it unfolds hidden membranes until it looks like a man struggling into a bathrobe six sizes too large. With amazing speed it dashes along the underside of the limb, springs onto the main trunk, and leaps upward in a galloping motion With almost the agility of a squirrel. At this point the now incredulous watcher sees a blurred leap, and out on the still jungle air floats the most perfect gliding machine . . . looking for all the world like a small carpet with pointed ends, sailing through space.”

Even with a baby clinging to her chest, mother flying lemur does not quit her acrobatics, necessitating that a youngster hang on to mother for dear life, as she makes her glides up to 100 feet.

Humans have not fully understood yet how this acrobatic mother lands on a tree without smashing the little one, for it makes no apparent effort to land softly; but, somehow, the youngster survives.

Other species of lemurs have also mastered the art of climbing trees as the picture of a ring tailed lemur below clearly demonstrates:

Picture of a lemur climbing a tree.

Special tail for acrobatics

Picture of a possum climbing a tree.

Not all the furred acrobats are equipped with gliding membranes; some have a prehensile tail, one designed for seizing, grasping or holding.

Australia’s “possums” are well equipped in this regard, for these marsupials leap about in trees, using their tail as an acrobatic aid.

Some of the ring-tailed possums travel from one tree to another in the prettiest acrobatic manner.

They swing by their tail from the end of a slender branch.

Then they grasp with their fore-paws leaves or twigs of a bough of a nearby tree, release their tail-hold, and the next moment they are across the gap.

Another furred acrobat with a prehensile tail is the spider monkey of tropical America.

Picture of a spider monkey at a zoo.

This monkey’s tail is a remarkable one.

It has twenty-three vertebrae and is more than two feet long-longer than the monkey’s head and body.

The tip of the tail is sensitive and naked and can grasp things with unshakable firmness.

Virtually a fifth hand, the tail enables these monkey acrobats to suspend themselves in the air, leaving all four limbs free for other activities.

Or they can use the long tail to grasp a fruit they are unable to reach with their arms.

Those who have seen spider monkeys in a zoo swing from rope to rope or leap about in cages have some idea of their acrobatic agility, although such feats in confined spaces bear little comparison to what they can do in the boundless freedom of their native forests.

If these furred acrobats wish to cross to another tree, they may swing themselves by their tail until they can grasp a branch of the other tree.

But they also make speedy, flying leaps.

They have been seen dropping straight down twenty feet or more from one branch to another of the same tree.

The red spider monkey of Panama thinks nothing of prodigious leaps that may reach a length of 38 feet.

But tropical America is not alone in having champion monkey acrobats.

Africa has the very long-tailed (but not prehensile) guenon monkeys that take long flying leaps between trees.

Their style, of course, is different.

They take a short run, jump upward, with arms outspread, and go sailing headlong through the air.

By means of their tail, with its long, trailing weight, the monkeys alter their position from a nosedive to an upright stance.

Then they land on the side of a mass of leaves and smaller twigs, with arms and legs spread-eagle fashion.

They hug the foliage upon landing and then scramble to safety.

Speed champion with long arms

Picture of gibbon monkey hanging from a tree.

When it comes to speed in acrobatic feats, the gibbon of southeast Asia and some East Indian islands claims the prize.

These acrobats do not have a prehensile tail or, for that matter, any tail.

They are, nonetheless, well equipped for fancy acrobatics in the treetops, these animals long arms, so long that the tips of the fingers touch the ground when the animals stand erect.

Some gibbons have a tremendous arm spread of five feet, with the head and body being only three feet! .

In the trees, where they spend virtually all their life, gibbons dash along trapeze fashion, using their hands and arms for locomotion, their feet sometimes carrying a small supply of food.

“No other ape or monkey can travel through the trees with the speed of the gibbon,” says George G. Goodwin, Associate Curator of Mammals, the American Museum of Natural History.

Observers have watched gibbons in northern Sumatra forests in trees so high up it made them dizzy just to look up at them, as the gibbons sailed through the treetops with almost the speed of a bird.

The gibbons would take hold of a branch only momentarily, sometimes drop twenty to thirty feet, grab another branch and make off again at high speed in their high altitude homes.

We can be thankful of many kinds of marvelous animal life, including those furred acrobats of the treetops.