These animals aren’t tree huggers in the activist sense. They’re just hanging on for dear life!
As the largest and arguably most intelligent of all tree-dwelling animals, the orangutan is widely considered the king of the trees. Orangutans spend nearly all their time in the forest canopy where they feed, sleep, breed and raise their young. The females even give birth in a treetop nest, and their tiny infants cling to them as they swing through the trees in search of food. An orangutan’s long arms can reach a length of 7 feet, and their powerful, hand-like feet allow them to grasp branches tightly as they swing their massive bodies from branch to branch. Their limbs are also extremely flexible and their wrist, hip and shoulder joints are capable of greater range of motion than other apes. This gives them a grace, agility and speed that are unmatched among tree-dwelling animals.
No. 2 on our list takes the prize for being the most cute and cuddly of all our tree-dwelling species, according to a small survey of preschoolers. The koala spends nearly its entire life in the stands of eucalyptus trees, where it makes its home. Each koala has its own trees and is only visited by others during mating season, though they may venture to the ground to access a new stand of trees. These animals have a highly specialized diet, eating only eucalyptus leaves, which makes them smell a bit like cough drops. Remarkably, they spend up to 18 hours of each day in an inactive state, either sleeping or resting.
Chances are you have seen a treefrog at some point in your life, since there are many different species and they occur in diverse habitats worldwide. With their strong limbs they are able to leap from branch to branch, while their toe discs give them the stickiness and support they need to climb vertical surfaces. Their appearance often matches their surroundings – tropical species tend to be brightly colored, while temperate species are drab – and many can change color in response to a change in their environment.
4. Tree Kangaroo
Most people don’t think of kangaroos as arboreal, but the tree kangaroo is very much at home in the canopy, only occasionally venturing to the ground for food or to move to a new tree. Compared to ground-dwelling kangaroos, tree kangaroos are stout with strong claws to help them climb. Their long tails are not prehensile, but act as a counterbalance as they move along branches. Unlike other kangaroos, tree kangaroos can move each back leg independently, which gives them the agility they need to move from branch to branch.
Woodpeckers are the lumberjacks of the forest, diligently carving out holes in the trunks of large trees in order to reach the delicious ants or termites that may be hiding within. The largest and one of the most common in North America, the pileated woodpecker, has been known to topple large trees with its enormous excavations. Most woodpeckers have multiple adaptations to tree-top living, such as toes modified for climbing, a bill and neck strong enough for drilling into wood, and sharp spines in the tail feathers that stabilize the bird as it digs for food.
6. Spider Monkey
Spider monkeys are the aerial acrobats of the tree canopy, flying through the forest using their long arms and strong prehensile tails. These tails can hook around a tree branch and are strong enough to support a mother and her offspring. Most monkeys have no trouble dangling by their tails for long periods of time. Their bodies are also well-adapted as forest acrobats: spider monkeys are slim and their hands act as hooks that can pull a fruit-covered branch within biting distance. They occur in forests throughout South America and as far north as southern Mexico.
7. Flying Lemur
The name “flying lemur” is misleading, since these animals are not lemurs and they are incapable of true flight. However, like most lemurs, they are very well-adapted to life in the tree canopy. They appear to have wings, but on closer inspection the “wing” is a membrane that extends outward from the body and allows them to glide for distances of up to 300 feet between trees. The amazing thing is that they lose very little altitude when they glide, making them the most capable of all gliding species. This is quite handy as they are lousy climbers, clumsily creeping along tree branches using their weak thumbless paws.
8. Spotted Owl
Spotted owls are formidable and stealthy predators. With their sharp eyesight and exceptional hearing, they are able to swoop down silently and under cover of darkness to grab prey with their talons. Coming in at No. 8 in our countdown, these animals are perfectly suited for living in the treetops. They prey on other arboreal species, such as squirrels and amphibians, and rather than bother to build a nest, they simply use a tree cavity or take over the abandoned nests of other birds. Like many owls, spotted owls are strictly nocturnal and are often heard but rarely seen.
Image: Lip Kee Yap / Creative Commons
9. Green Tree Python
Like many members of the boa family the green tree python has one of the best adaptations for life in the trees: a strong prehensile tail. With it, the animal is able to remain firmly anchored to a branch while it lurks around for food on the forest floor. Its slender shape and bright green body also give it excellent coverage in the lush jungles where it makes its home in New Guinea, certain islands in Indonesia and northern Australia. If you find yourself in that area, keep a look out for the coils of the green tree python among the branches.
Have you ever wondered what Darth Vader would look like as an insect? A treehopper is probably a pretty safe bet. The foremost part of the thorax in this group of tree-dwelling insects is a hard protuberance in the shape of a horn, spine, bulb or crescent. It gives them the appearance of wearing a helmet or suit of armor. It also gives them a great deal of protection in the forest - these structures are tough enough to puncture skin or penetrate a shoe. With mouthparts modified for sucking tree sap, these insects are perfectly arboreal, a term that means living in trees, and rarely descend to the forest floor. They are called treehoppers for their habit of hopping away when approached or threatened.