We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 10 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.
Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.
These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.
Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.
We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.
Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.
Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on… Five Ten take note…
Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.
As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”
Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…
Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.