9 Surprising Animals That Fly

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It's a bird, it's a plane!

natureniche/iStockphoto.

Self-propelled flight has only evolved four times throughout history, thanks to insects, birds, bats and the extinct Pterosaurs. But there are a number of creatures alive today that may evolve to become the fifth.

It isn't the same as successful sustained flight, but the biological world is aflutter with animals that have adapted ways of gliding, parachuting or ballooning through the air. Here's our list of nine animals that have found unexpected ways to defy the laws of gravity. (Text: Bryan Nelson)

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Flying fish

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There are more than 60 species of flying fishes of the family Exocoetidae. These incredible fishes have evolved the ability to leap out of the water and glide through the air to escape underwater predators.

Some flying fish have been recorded maintaining flight for at least 45 seconds (see the incredible video of the record flight here). Some other types of fish, like the freshwater hachetfish, actually beat their pectoral fins like wings when they leap out of the water, and are capable of achieving momentary lift.

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Flying frog

Snowleopard1/iStockphoto.

Gliding has evolved at least twice among families of tree frogs, with some species capable of impressive aerial maneuvers such as banked turns and yawing. They have adapted these abilities thanks to enlarged toe membranes, which can act like parachutes or wings when the frog spreads its limbs after a jump.

Flight also gives these frogs an advantage living in the trees, as it expands their range and makes traveling between distant branches much easier.

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Flying squirrel

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As many as 44 species of squirrel have evolved furry membranes that stretch from their wrists to their ankles, allowing them remarkable freedom in gliding through the air.

Their aeronautic design is quite impressive. They are capable of directing their flight with subtle movements from specially adapted wrist bones, and they use their tails as an air brake.

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Draco lizards and flying geckos

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Lizards of the genus Draco have made unusual use of their rib bones. Rather than using them to protect their torsos, these arboreal reptiles instead spread their ribs out like wings.

Some species have been recorded making flights as long as 60 meters without losing much height.

Other species of lizards, including several gecko species, have evolved extra flaps of skin along their tails, heads, torsos, toes and limbs that also allow them to glide from tree to tree.

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Colugos

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Although colugos are sometimes referred to as flying lemurs, they are not true lemurs.

Found gliding through the trees in southeast Asia, colugos are the best adapted mammals in the world for flight, aside from bats. For a time they were considered to be a close living relative of bats, though they have since been reassigned to a lineage closer to primates.

They can remain airborne for a distance of at least 70 meters without losing much height, an impressive feat since they can grow to the size of a possum.

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Flying squid

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Though it sounds like something out of a horror movie, it's true: there are squid capable of leaping out of the water and flying.

One species is the Humboldt squid, a large, jumbo-sized animal known to be aggressive toward humans, though if you see one flying it's likely to be escaping from a predator rather than acting like one.

Flying squid accomplish flight much in the same way as flying fish, only they use their mantle fins as wings. Some flying squid have even been seen jetting water out of their funnels to create propulsion while in the air.

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Flying phalangers

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Though often confused for flying squirrels because of their similar biological design, flying phalangers are actually marsupials that have evolved their furry membranes independently of squirrels.

Some species, such as the sugar glider, have become popular exotic pets.

Like most of the world's marsupials, flying phalangers can be found only in Australia and New Guinea, where most of them are also endangered.

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Ballooning spiders

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It might be every arachnaphobe's worst nightmare, but many spiders are capable of flight. Unlike other flying animals, however, spiders have aerial skills because specialized parachutes, which they weave from their silk.

Few adult spiders rely on ballooning for regular travel, but the young of many species use the technique to leave the nest and build webs in faraway places. Some spiders have been found on atmospheric data balloons as high as 16,000 feet above sea level!

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Gliding snakes

Michael Pereckas/Flickr.

Some tree snakes have evolved the ability to flatten themselves, essentially turning their bodies into a concave wing. The aerodynamics of their gliding motion is similar to that of a frisbee, and they can fly for as far as 100 meters.

Their flying ability is so unique that it has recently attracted the interest of physicists who want to understand how these snakes can slither through the air.

Some snakes have been observed making sharp 90-degree turns while gliding. (Check out these incredible videos of flying snakes.)