9 Surprising Animals That Fly

Sunda flying lemur with tiny red ears clinging to a palm tree trunk

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Self-propelled flight has been observed throughout history thanks to insects, birds, bats, and the extinct Pterosaurs. But there are a number of creatures alive today that do something akin to flying — gliding. Some, like flying squirrels, are familiar, while others, like flying squid, not as much. Here's our list of nine animals that have found unexpected ways to defy the laws of gravity.

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Flying Fish

A flying fish with its fins outstretched above blue water

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There are more than 60 species of flying fish of the family Exocoetidae. These incredible fish have evolved the ability to leap out of the water and glide through the air to escape underwater predators. The maximum distance of a flying fish is 650 feet. Some species, 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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Wallace's Flying frog

A green Wallace's flying frog with purple and orange feet on the side of a tree trunk

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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. The Wallace’s flying frog benefits from large webbed feet, which allow it to glide up to 50 feet, and strong suction pads that give the frog a strong grip when it lands.

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Flying Squirrel

A Southern flying squirrel leaping between trees covered by red fall leaves

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Three species of flying squirrels are found in North America: the northern flying squirrel, the southern flying squirrel, and the Humboldt’s flying squirrel. All 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. Most flying squirrels travel distances of 20 to 65 feet, although they may glide as far as 300 feet.

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Draco Lizards

A Draco lizard clutching the side of a palm tree trunk

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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. Flying lizards typically use their ability to fly to travel from tree to tree in their rainforest habitat to hunt for food. They can fly for a distance of 26 feet on average. Other species of lizards, including several gecko species, have evolved extra flaps of skin along their tails, heads, torsos, toes, and limbs that allow them to glide as well.

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A gray colugos clinging to a tree branch o a tree filled with green leaves

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Although colugos are sometimes referred to as flying lemurs, they are not true lemurs, and they glide rather than fly. The only mammals with the ability to fly are bats. Found gliding through the trees in southeast Asia and the southern Philippines, colugos have a fur-covered membrane that allows them to travel up to 300 feet between trees. They are nocturnal and hang upside down between feedings.

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Flying Squid

A Humboldt squid in the ocean with a scuba diver illuminating it with a large light

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The Humboldt squid is a jumbo-sized squid that flies. This deep sea creature is distributed throughout the world’s oceans. Humboldt squid are known to propel themselves out of water in an effort to escape predators. Humboldt squid have a couple of other tricks up their tentacles: they can camouflage to blend in with their environment and will squirt ink to limit other creatures’ visibility.

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Flying Phalangers

A sugar glider soaring between tall green trees

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Though often confused for flying squirrels because of their similar biological design, flying phalangers, including sugar gliders, are actually marsupials that have evolved their furry membranes. Sugar gliders can propel themselves up to distances of 150 feet. Other members of the genus Petaurus are squirrel gliders and yellow bellied gliders. Like most of the world's marsupials, flying phalangers can be found only in Australia and New Guinea.

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Ballooning Spiders

A brown funnel spider on a web

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It might be every arachnophobe's worst nightmare, but many spiders are capable of flight. Unlike other flying animals, however, spiders have aerial skills because they weave them 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 utilize air current to build webs in faraway places.

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Gliding Snakes

A brown and white snake gliding on a large green leaf

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Some tree snakes have evolved the ability to flatten themselves, essentially turning their bodies into a concave wing. The aerodynamics of their gliding motion allows some, like the paradise tree snake, to glide distances of over 30 feet. Their flying ability is so unique that it has attracted the interest of scientists who want to understand the role of undulation in flying snakes.

How Do Animals Fly Without Wings?

Nonwinged animals use what they have to fly, whether that be fins, webbed toes, patagia, or pseudo-jetpacks.

Most flying mammals have membranous skin folds called patagia that stretch between the forelimbs and hindlimbs and form a sort of parachute. This is the case for flying squirrels, flying phalangers, colugos, and even bats. The Wallace's flying frog's webbed feet serve the same function.

To propel them from the ocean, flying fish gain momentum by flapping their fins and flying squid by squirting water from their backsides. Airborne spiders use a strand of their own silk to fly.