for National Geographic News
Gliding mammals equipped with high-tech "backpacks" chock full of sensors are giving scientists new insights into aerial maneuverability, a new study reports.
The study focused on the Malayan colugo, a cat-size animal commonly called a flying lemur—even though it is not a true lemur, nor does it technically fly.
(Related news: "Flying Lemurs Are Primates' Closest Kin" [November 1, 2007].)
Instead the animal coasts between trees using a skin membrane attached to its hands and feet called a patagium.
Colugos can glide for the length of two football fields (360 feet, or 110 meters), maneuver around obstacles, and execute 90-degree turns in midair.
To learn the secrets of the creatures' agility and how they can land safely after long glides, researchers glued small packages of sensors to several animals' backs.
The packs—each about the size of half a stick of gum—included motion-detection technology similar to that found in the remote control for the Nintendo Wii video-game console.
The findings shed new light on the biomechanics of gliding animals and could aid in the design of flexible-wing aircraft such as hang gliders, the study authors say.
"By studying how gliding animals control their membrane, we can learn more about how to control flexible wings," said study team member Greg Byrnes of the University of California, Berkeley.
Byrnes and colleagues describe their research in the online issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Ace the Landing
The scientists caught adult colugos in the forests of the Singapore Zoological Garden as the nocturnal animals rested during the day. (Find out more about Singapore.)
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