“If you could have any superpower, what would you have?”
It was a common question thrown around the school playground.
Of course, many people said they would fly.
And why wouldn’t you? To soar the skies and escape those below you.
Others said they wanted the power of breathing underwater whilst swimming.
Unfortunately, this is all a fantasy for us humans.
There are some animals that have these real life superpowers. They don’t just have one or two superpowers. We’re talking three superpowers. They can swim, fly and walk! Waterfowl, such as ducks, and seabirds, such as puffins and gannets, take the spotlight. However, more unusual animals, such as the dragonfly, can also walk, swim and fly.
For this article, we’ll be exploring some of the animals that can exhibit different forms of locomotion. For some, they can walk, swim and fly in most stages of their lives. Others, however, can only display a certain locomotion in one stage of their life.
1. Mallard Duck
Nearly all domesticated ducks found on Earth have a common ancestor: the wild mallard duck.
This species of wild duck can be found in temperate and subtropical regions of the world, including Europe, North America and North Africa. However, due to intentional introductions, mallards can now be found on nearly every continent.
Mallards are a species of waterfowl, belonging to the dabbling duck family. Dabbling ducks are species that tend to eat on the surface of the water. However, they are strong underwater swimmers, and will dive under water to search for aquatic plants and invertebrates.
They have large webbed feet that aid in efficient swimming. However, their powerful webbed feet come at a cost. They are poor walkers.
Much like someone with one too many drinks under their belt, a mallard will waddle rather clumsily on land. But hey, at least they can still walk.
Instead, mallards are very good fliers. Not only are they relatively lightweight, they also have a wide wingspan of up to 37 inches. These large wings allow them to cover speeds of up to 55 mph – a pretty handy advantage for migrating mallards escaping the frigid cold Northern climates to seek refuge in the warmer Southern states.
They are, perhaps, one of the most recognizable species of waterfowl, with males adorned in vibrant green and purple plumage. Males use their colorful feathers to compete for mates. The more vibrant the coloration, the more likely they will mate with a female. If only it was that easy for humans.
Mallards are very adaptable species. So much so, they are considered invasive in some areas. They will spend their lives in urban settlements, such as ponds and canals, as well as the more wild wetlands.
2. Muscovy Duck
So, we mentioned that nearly all domesticated ducks originate from the wild mallard.
But not all species.
Domesticated Muscovy ducks come from, you guessed it, wild Muscovy ducks.
Muscovy ducks are a large, heavy duck species. However, some believe they are more goose-like. And this isn’t completely out there. Afterall, they do have goose-like qualities, such as grazing on grass.
Heavier than the wild mallard, the Muscovy is slightly less efficient at flight.
Living in the tropical rainforests and wetlands of Central And South America, Muscovies do not need to migrate vast distances. Instead, they display a form of vertical migration. They leave the water and fly up into trees, where they nest.
Yes, you read that right. Muscovy ducks are considered perching birds and nest in trees. They are one of the only ducks to do so.
They have sharp claws on their hind feet, which help them perch on branches in the canopy. That’s where their flight comes in.
But what about their swimming?
Well, Muscovy ducks are also very strong swimmers. They dive down to the bottom of lakes or rivers, foraging for small fish, invertebrates, crustaceans and aquatic plants.
Excellent fliers. Tick.
Exceptional swimmers. Tick.
Brilliant walkers? Erm…
First, let’s explore the flying and swimming ability of the gannet.
Gannets are large, white sea birds with a yellowish head. They can be found in the North Atlantic, as well as temperate coastal regions around South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Gannets are most famed for their hunting techniques.
For a successful hunt, a gannet takes to the skies to search for shoals of fish. A particular favourite is mackeral, due to its high oil content.
Once a shoal of fish has been located, a gannet will launch itself into the water, at speeds of up to 100 km/h. This force would be enough to cause serious injury in many species, however, the gannet has evolved air sacs around its head and chest to cushion the explosive impact.
Whilst diving, they tuck their wings tight to their body, creating an incredibly streamlined shape. This enables the gannet to dive deeper than any other seabird, up to 15 meters, and exploit the wealth of fish that can be found there.
Underwater, gannets are expert swimmers. They use both their wings and their feet to propel themselves even deeper into the ocean in pursuit of prey.
Gannets are so well adapted to life not only in the sky, but also in the water, that they rarely come to shore.
However, there comes a point where every sexually mature gannet has to come to shore: to breed.
On rocky, coastal outcrops, gannets clumsily stagger along rocks. With evolution favouring a life at sea, gannets only need the ability to walk in order to breed and make a nest. Once a chick has hatched, the gannet will take to the skies once more and the cycle continues.
Ah, the puffin. The bird equivalent of a teddy bear.
Deceivingly small, no larger than 30cm, they are black and white with vibrant beak and leg markings.
Much like the gannet, they are pelagic seabirds, diving under the waves to seek out fish prey.
Puffins are capable all-rounders. They can walk, swim and fly well, though they do not excel in any one field.
For example, their short wingspan means they have to flap their wings an astonishing 400 beats a minute to keep them airborne. An incredibly energetically costly process, but yields speeds of up to 80 km/h.
Although they are birds, puffins are probably the most efficient in water. Like the gannet, they can flap their wings underwater, essentially flying under the waves, and dive to depths of up to 60 meters to seek out their favourite prey – sand eels. They use their webbed feet to control direction and can stay submerged for up to one minute.
Whilst they spend two-thirds of the year at sea, they do come back to land for approximately 4 months of the year to breed and nest.
Unlike other seabird species, that make nests on rock faces, puffins dig out shallow burrows. Using their beaks to break up the soil, and their feet to push the soil away, puffins make nesting chambers up to two meters deep, to keep predators away. They can walk, or waddle, rather effectively when on land.
The moorhen, or, as it’s rather unceremoniously referred to, the water chicken, is a species of water rail found across Europe and Africa.
Moorhens are commonly found in well-vegetated swamps and marshes, where they lead an omnivorous lifestyle, feeding on aquatic plants, to small invertebrates.
In dense, vegetative environments, flying only seems to inhibit the moorhen. However, this isn’t to say they can’t fly, as they most certainly can, but they can only fly short distances at a time.
Instead, the moorhen is better adapted to swimming and walking.
Both male and female moorhens have strong and powerful yellow legs. Unlike other duck species, their feet are not webbed. So, how do they swim?
At the end of their legs, a moorhen has three incredibly long toes, which can be used to propel them through the water – much like a flipper.
However, these long toes also enable the moorhen to effortlessly walk across pond vegetation, such as lillypads, without sinking. They can increase their surface area to volume ratio to evenly distribute their weight to prevent sinking.
Enough about birds.
Let’s rock the boat a little.
Enter the dragonfly.
Now, unlike birds, they cannot swim, fly and walk simultaneously. But hear me out.
In their larval form, dragonflies are mean, lean, killing machines of the underwater world. Known as nymphs, these murderous invertebrates can be found walking on aquatic vegetation, or creeping along the pond floor.
Nymphs can also swim throughout the water column in search of prey by wiggling their abdomen.
Once a prey species has been located, a dragonfly nymph will enter ambush mode. Remaining motionless, the nymph waits until prey, such as tadpoles, mosquito larvae or even small fish, swim by.
With lightning speed, the lower jaw of the nymph shoots out, grasping onto prey with devastating consequences.
Once the nymph has consumed enough food and grown significantly (up to 12 independent moults), it will leave the safety of the water and enter a stage of metamorphosis – much like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.
Fully mature, an adult dragonfly will take to the skies. They are highly skilled fliers, capable of flying in a range of directions. They can hover mid-air, as well as mate whilst in flight.
A dragonfly that cannot fly will not survive. This is because dragonflies, using their exceptional eyesight (thanks to thier , hunt and catch their prey in flight.
Similar to the dragonfly, mosquitoes go through different life stages where they can walk, swim and fly.
Like all insects, a mosquito has 6 legs. The end part of the leg, or tarsus, allows the female mosquito to walk on water, using surface water tension to prevent sinking.
She does this in order to lay her eggs. A mosquito – considered the most dangerous animal on our planet – must lay eggs in a water source to facilitate the next stage.
After hatching, a mosquito start life off as a worm-like larvae in areas of still or slow moving water.
Like the dragonfly nymph, which wiggles its abdomen to move, the mosquito larvae wiggles its entire body back and forth. By doing so, the larvae can swim vertically throughout the water column – either in search of food (organic debris such as plant matter and microorganisms), or to avoid predators.
Mosquitos, unlike dragonflies, go through complete metamorphosis. This means there is a pupal stage in which the larvae transforms into a mature adult through a process of physiological changes.
Eventually, a fully mature adult mosquito will leave the water and fly to food sources – nectar for males and blood for females.
8. Flying Gecko
Birds are obvious contenders for animals that can walk, fly and swim. It even seems logical for some insects to display these three forms of locomotion.
But what about reptiles?
Well, and take this with a pinch of salt, there is a group of reptiles that can walk, swim and fly. The aptly named, flying geckos.
Endemic to Southeast Asia, there are thought to be 13 species that make up the flying gecko genus.
By day, flying geckos display cryptic colouration, a form of camouflage that allows the small reptilians to blend into their surroundings to avoid detection by potential predators.
Under the cover of darkness, flying geckos actively hunt and forage a range of insects, as well as spiders and small vertebrates.
They walk vertically along tree branches, aided by hundreds of microscopic hairs, known as setae (which are further divided into even smaller bristles, known as spatulae). But, there is another force at play. The van der Waals force – a type of physical bond between the electrons of the gecko toe hair and electrons from another surface, creating an electromagnetic attraction that prevents the gecko from falling off a surface.
Phwoar, science! You’ve outdone yourself!
If, however, they come face to face with a predator on their climbs – such as snakes, predatory birds, or larger lizards, they have a rather ingenious defence mechanism. The power of flight.
Whilst they cannot actively use wings like a bird or insect, they can extend their legs and tails, as well as flaps of skin surrounding their tail, feet and flanks, increasing their surface area. This increased surface area allows them to glide from tree to tree.
So, whilst they have yet to master powered flight, flying geckos can glide to safety, much like a human using a wingsuit.
And what about swimming?
Well, again, you’ll have to take this one with another pinch of salt.
Flying geckos have hydrophobic skin. That is, skin that is able to repel water. Makes sense really, seeing as they come from the humid tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. This waterproof skin, along with their spread out toes, enables them to float on water.
Most species of geckos are not a huge fan of swimming, preferring to lead an arboreal lifestyle. However, should the need arise, such as uncontrolled gliding into a shallow pool of water, a flying gecko will be able to propel itself across the surface of the water.
If you thought birds could only fly, well, surprise.
It’s clear that birds come out as our top contenders for animals that can walk, swim and fly.
Whilst some birds can swim better than they can walk, there are other birds that can walk better than they can fly. There are some birds that can only walk. And some that can swim and walk but can’t fly.
Who knew being a bird would be so complicated.
However, birds aren’t the only animals capable of showing off the three forms of locomotion.
We have insects, such as dragonflies, that can swim and walk in their larval form, and fly in their adult form.
We also have reptiles that have evolved the power of gliding, somewhat similar to flying.
Nature never fails to amaze me.