Nature’s Famous Leapers

Lemming (photo by Sander van der Wel)

It is leap-day, and what better time to celebrate the incredible feats of leaping that some of our natural friends perform.

Let’s start with the obvious, lemmings leaping off cliffs. Bad news: That’s an unfortunate myth. Lemmings are rodents with enormous powers of reproduction. Consequently, every few years their populations grow too large for their current habitat. In response, large groups migrate together in search of a new home. They are good swimmers, and they don’t let obstacles get in the way. But, they don’t launch themselves off cliffs in apparent mass suicides. That myth comes from an old nature film in which the film crew actually pushed lemmings off a cliff for the dramatic effect. Bad behavior by humans, but not by lemmings.

Humans have also engaged in similar behavior to outwit the game animals they used for food, clothing and tools, specifically the American bison. Native peoples living on the plains would herd bison to the edge of a cliff and then drive them over the edge, collecting the dead animals from the base of the cliff. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta is an UNESCO World Heritage Site devoted to the aboriginal practice conducted there. The site was used for over 600 years, demonstrating the sustainability of traditional, communal hunting techniques.

But let’s talk about leapers that don’t rely on an assist from humans. Mark Twain wrote a famous story about one such leapers—The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. A competition by the same name goes on to this day. The world champion is Rosie the Ribeter, an American bullfrog, that jumped a total of 21 feet, 5.75 inches in a combined three-leap event in 1986. But the true world record, we’re told, is a South African frog of unknown heritage that jumped more than 33 feet in one leap.

Then there are the flying fishes. Flying fish are a family of more than 40 species that can grow to about 18 inches long. The fish doesn’t actually fly, it leaps. Its streamlined shape allows it to swim fast, explode from the surface and glide along, supported on wing-like pectoral fins. A single leap can go farther than 600 feet, but the fish can extend the flight by falling to the surface, flexing its tail and returning to the air. Extended leaps like this can go farther than 1300 feet.

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This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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