Nature’s Famous Leapers

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.

Lemming (photo by Sander van der Wel)

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.

Among mammals, the champion seems to be the red kangaroo.  These 200-pound leapers of Australia move in a series of leap, with a consistent hop that goes 6 feet high and 25 feet long.  But on occasion they can leap much farther, up to 45 feet in a single bound.

Red kangaroo (1863 painting by John Gould)

The champion of all leapers is, of course, the flea.  This tiny insect routinely jumps 5 inches up and 8 inches out.  But record flights of fleas are as far as 19 inches, about 300 times its body length.  Comparing that to a 6-foot-tall human, that would be a leap of 1800 feet, or about one-third of a mile!  Eat your heart out, Spiderman.

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/story/do-lemmings-really-commit-mass-suicide.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

FleaScience.  How far and high can fleas jump?  Available at:  http://fleascience.com/flea-encyclopedia/life-cycle-of-fleas/adult-fleas/how-do-fleas-move/how-far-and-high-can-fleas-jump/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

Lindsay.  2012.  Let the games begin!  Amphibian Rescue & Conservation Project.  Available at:  http://amphibianrescue.org/tag/american-bullfrog/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

National Georgaphic.  Flying Fish.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/group/flying-fish/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

National Geographic.  Red Kangaroo.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/r/red-kangaroo/.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

UNESCO.  Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.  Available at:  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/158.  Accessed February 23, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

October 1
Yosemite National Park Created (1890)
October 2
San Diego Zoo Founded (1916)
October 3
James Herriot, English Veterinarian, Born (1916)
October 4
Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Ecology
October 5
Catherine Cooper Hopley, British Herpetologist, Born (1817)
October 6
Mad Hatter’s Day
October 7
Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, Born (1888)
October 8
World Octopus Day
October 9
Vajont Dam Disaster (1963)
October 10
Dnieper Dam Began Operation (1932)
October 11
Big Cypress and Big Thicket National Preserves Created (1974)
October 12
William Laurance, Tropical Conservationist, Born (1957)
October 13
International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction
October 14
Timpanogos Cave National Monument Created (1922)
October 15
Isabella Bird, Pioneering Eco-traveler, Born (1831)
October 16
World Food Day
October 17
Oliver Rackham born (1939)
October 18
Clean Water Act established (1972)
October 19
Research Vessel Albatross Launched (1882)
October 20
OPEC Oil Embargo (1973)
October 21
“Ding” Darling born (1876)
October 22
Wombat Day
October 23
Cumberland Island National Seashore established (1972)
October 24
Antoni von Leeuwenhoek born (1632)
October 25
Secretary of the Interior Convicted in Teapot Dome Scandal (1929)
October 26
Erie Canal Opens (1825)
October 27
Golden Gate and Gateway National Recreation Areas Created (1972)
October 28
Henry Mosby, Wild Turkey Biologist, Born (1913)
October 28
First Ticker-tape Parade Held (1886)
October 29
Stanley Park, Vancouver, Dedicated (1889)
October 30
UNESCO Designates 9 Natural World Heritage Sites (1981)
October 31
Lincoln Highway Dedicated (1913)
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