It’s a lizard! It’s a plane! It’s Supergecko! Researchers at UC Berkeley (where else) put a gecko into a wind tunnel to watch it fly. News about gecko’s magic feet that allow it to run vertically up glass is almost old hat now.1 Even a gecko can lose its footing, though, and thereon hangs a tail. Publishing in PNAS,2 (the cover story of the March 18 issue), the team had some superlatives to share about these critters that skitter:

In a single second of vertical running, geckos travel 15 body lengths and take 30 steps. During rapid climbing, their toes attach in 5 ms [milliseconds, or thousandths of a second] and detach in only 15 ms…. During our initial explorations of climbing on realistic surfaces and upside down locomotion, we noticed that a gecko’s agility involved far more than just secure footholds.  Here, we pursue our observations by testing the hypothesis that the gecko’s tail enhances its scansorial and arboreal performance.

The speed translates into 3 feet per second. Taking advantage of atomic van der Waals forces, they attach and detach their feet 30 times per second while running straight up. Amazing as the feet are, the tail is the key to this tale.

The active tails of the gecko function as stabilizers and gliders.  When the gecko finds itself in a rapid free-fall, unlike Wiley E. Coyote, it can flip right over. The tail twists and puts him right-side-up in mere milliseconds. Then, the tail provides pitch control as the gecko assumes Superman position, allowing him to land on all fours almost every time. Unlike cats, which can right themselves during a drop by twisting the spine, geckos keep their spine rigid. They flip upright by doing the twist with their active tails….

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