AUSTIN—Salamanders aren't known for their power thighs. Yet some can put the best basketball players to shame, leaping six to eight times their body height with just a flick of their bodies—or so it seemed. The movement is actually more complicated, researchers reported here Saturday at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Leaping lizards and drop-shot basketball players push down to get the push-off needed to become airborne, but salamander leg muscles are tiny and their legs are spread out around them, so they can't push off. By analyzing high-speed videos, researchers at Northern Arizona University discovered that, instead, the amphibian uses a rear leg as a pivot point, planting it forward. It then bends the body around the planted foot, essentially storing up the energy it will need to jump. But instead of unbending in a simple "flick," it quickly shifts that bend over the hips so they rotate away from the planted foot at a speed of 17 body lengths per second (as in video above). That action pulls the body forward and throws the salamander over the planted foot, into the air. In bending, the salamander shifts its center of mass out over the foot, giving it a better grip. The animal uses this movement to escape danger. The salamander's leaps demonstrate that even objects that lie flat on the ground can get into the air, despite the lack of a means to push off, and could lead to the design of flat catapults.
Video: Salamander Is a 'Flat Catapult'