Flight: WILD ART 2021

As part of the Wild Art 2021 November Challenge, put on by Zoe Keller, I illustrated two pieces focusing on the theme, “FLIGHT”. Each month, I am going to focus on two pieces – one highlighting flora, the other highlighting fauna. This month, I focused on two species, one amphibian who glides (instead of flies), and the other uses special morphological adaptations to catch the wind to move.

Let’s Define Flight

Flight occurs when a species can actively flap wings made of a thin skin or wings in order to maintain distance and height. Animals such as birds and bats are able to truly fly since they can maintain being airborne for long periods of time, sustaining flight by flapping. While animals such as Sugar Gliders, Wallace’s Flying Frog, Sailfin Flying Fish, and others, soar overhead, they don’t actually fly. Instead, they glide! They use thin membranes to catch air and wind, similarly to a parachute, in order to glide along before landing.

But why would an animal want to only “sort-of” fly?

wallaces-flying-frog illustration for Flight: Wild Art

The Benefits of Gliding

The Wallace’s Flying Frog, and many others (except for the fish), live in tree tops. Instead of clumsily jumping from branch to branch, they can leap off and soar from one tree to the next! This allows for a fast escape from predators.

Imagine being this jungle-residing, tree-dwelling frog… You are about the size of an adult fist, and hop around the tops of tree canopies in search of insects. Suddenly, you see a large, tree-climbing snake here too. Eek! This is one of your predators. In order to escape, you need to quickly get out of the tree you’re in, and to the tree next to you. Unfortunately, if you just drop out of the tree, you’ll have a LOOONG way to fall. Fortunately, you have adapted gliding mechanisms! You leap out of the tree, and spread your feet out, allowing the fleshy membrane between your toes to catch the wind. This carries you quickly away from the reach of the snake!

It’s not just animals though that have developed pseudo-flight mechanisms! Plants are able to take to the air as well, or at least some of the seeds are.

Importance of Seed Dispersal

A plant’s goal is to produce and release seeds to germinate and perpetuate it’s genes. In order to ensure that this happens, plants need to make sure that the flowers get pollinated and fertilized. This fertilization creates seeds, which will be dispersed to grow up into new plants. Some plants drop the seeds at the base of the plant. Next season, when it germinates, these plants are pollinated one after another and all have the same genetics. The gene pool won’t expand and the plant runs the risk of becoming diseased or deformed. Think of seeds like dog breeds. Purebred dogs, with the same gene pool being tapped into repeatedly, the more likely it is to have health issues. Mutts have a ton of diverse genes and will be more likely to overcome health issues. Seeds want a wide variety of genes too!

How do plants, without feet to walk and meet new plants, ensure that the genes they pass down contain diversity? One way is to rely on animals to move for them! As animals, such as birds or small mammals, eat the fruits or nuts, they run around all over the place. When they poop out the undigested seeds, it’s usually not in the same place that they ate. Now, the seeds are in little packets of fertilizer and can germinate away from the parent plant, thus being more likely to be fertilized by another plant with different genetics! Other plants develop sticky seeds that attach to the fur of animals running by. Other plants don’t want to rely on animals to spread the seeds. Animals might not travel by while the flowers or seeds are ready, so what can the plant do to adapt?

milkweed-plant and seeds taking off_Flight: Wild Art 2021

They can learn to fly on their own!

Seed Dispersion by Wind

What better way to ensure that you will be able to move, regardless of if an animals passes by or not, than by just taking flight yourself?! Wind is always available, so many plants have adapted ways to have their seeds be wind-dispersed. Whenever you see a seed that is attached to soft, feathery hairs, you can be sure that this plant has learned to “fly”. Dandelions, milkweeds (as illustrated here), clematis, and more have seeds attached to lightweight sails that are caught by wind and can be blown almost a mile away; a super long way for a plant to travel! The dandelion holds the record for seed dispersion, with a dandelion seed being blown over 60 miles (100km) from it’s parent plant!

While these plants and animals technically don’t have flight capabilities, it is amazing to see how they have overcome and adapted to be able to glide and use the wind to their advantage in order to ensure their survival. Interested in learning more about plant adaptations, and how important and difficult survival is? Stay tuned next month to learn more about plants and animals that are threatened, and ways to make a positive difference for their populations with the “In Peril” theme!

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