A small, secretive creature with unlikely qualifications for defying gravity may hold the answer to an entirely new way of getting off the ground. Salamanders—or at least several species of the Plethodontidae family—can jump, and humans would like to know a lot more about it. “This particular jump is unique in the world,” said graduate researcher Anthony Hessel, as quoted in a January 21, 2014 press release from Northern Arizona University (NAU). “That’s why I think a lot of people are finding this very interesting.” The NAU student calls the move a “hip-twist jump” that powers a “flat catapult,” describing the biomechanics in language the public can access. But the work has caught the attention of a highly technical crowd. Hessel, who studies muscle physiology and biomechanics, recalled the moment he fully grasped the reach of his findings. An email from a premier journal reached him over the holiday break with the subject line “Science is interested in your work.” The contact arose from his presentation at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology symposium. There will likely be more who are interested. “It’s a new way to get vertical lift for animals,” Hessel said. “Something that is flat on the ground, that is not pushing directly down on the ground, can still get up in the air. I’d say that hundreds of engineers will now toy with the idea and figure out what cool things can be built from it.” Hessel used high-speed film, a home-built cantilever beam apparatus, some well-established engineering equations, and biomechanical analysis to produce the details of how a slippery little amphibian with short legs can propel itself six to 10 times its body length into the air. The key is that the salamander’s legs don’t provide the push that most creatures would require.
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