A biomechanically parsimonious hypothesis for the evolution of flapping flight in terrestrial vertebrates suggests progression within an arboreal context from jumping to directed aerial descent, gliding with control via appendicular motions, and ultimately to powered flight. The more than 30 phylogenetically independent lineages of arboreal vertebrate gliders lend strong indirect support to the ecological feasibility of such a trajectory. Insect flight evolution likely followed a similar sequence, but is unresolved paleontologically. Recently described falling behaviors in arboreal ants provide the first evidence demonstrating the biomechanical capacity for directed aerial descent in the complete absence of wings. Intentional control of body trajectories as animals fall from heights (and usually from vegetation) likely characterizes many more taxa than is currently recognized. Understanding the sensory and biomechanical mechanisms used by extant gliding animals to control and orient their descent is central to deciphering pathways involved in flight evolution.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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