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Chasing Borneo’s Gliders
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Article and Photographs by Tim Laman

A mélange of creatures in Borneo’s rain forest have evolved gravity-defying means of travel.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The snake moved along the tree branch in the dappled light of Borneo’s rain forest. Suddenly it dropped over the edge, just holding on by its tail, and then pushed off into the damp air. It changed shape as it began to drop, ribs spreading and body flattening as it swam through the air. This would be the worst nightmare of someone afraid of snakes, but to me it was a part of a wild dream come true.

Since I first went to Borneo in 1987, I have been curious about the island’s extraordinary diversity of gliders. It’s not that they are easily noticed. Most of them have cryptic coloring, are nocturnal, or are hidden in the high canopy. Over the years as a field biologist I had exciting, fleeting encounters with them: A giant flying squirrel as big as a T-shirt, glimpsed soaring at dusk. The flying gecko that glided into my jungle hut and landed on my back. Two paradise tree snakes on a branch a hundred feet up in a tree next to the one I was climbing. A flying lemur letting out an unearthly scream as it eluded an attacking hawk.

These gliding animals can’t propel themselves through the air like birds or bats. They shift body weight subtly or adjust tails and limbs to steer a controlled flight path through the canopy labyrinth. Locating and observing these gliders in the wild was a challenge. I climbed 150-foot (46 meter) trees and trekked the jungle day and night. Only slowly, slowly, did the timeless forest reveal its secrets.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

This monthly special showcases a unique blend of imagery and sound. Climb into the canopy with author/photographer Tim Laman as he searches for Borneo’s elusive gliders.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The scientific name assigned to a specific animal is not always a simple matter. The basis for today’s system of classification began with the work of 18th-century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus developed a system in which all animals and plants were grouped according to structural similarities and given a scientific name—one name to denote its genus and one name to describe its species. Over the years this system has evolved and become more complex. Today biologists use a similar framework for classification, but not all agree on how different animals fit into this scheme. Scientific names are debated and sometimes changed as more and more is learned about a specific animal. Take the case of the flying lemur. For decades biologists have commonly recognized one genus of flying lemur (Cynocephalus) with two species (volans and variegatus). Recent scientific study indicates that there are clearly two morphologically and ecologically distinct genera: Cynocephalus (for the Philippines) and Galeopterus (for Indonesia and the Southeast Asian mainland)—a classification first proposed almost a hundred years ago.

(For a more detailed discussion of this change in classification see: Stafford, Brian J., and Frederick S. Szalay. “Craniodental functional morphology and taxonomy of dermopterans,” Journal of Mammology, vol 81, May 2000.)

Nature Conservation in Indonesia
Indonesia has a wealth of natural ecosystems. Learn about the mammals and birds that inhabit this country as well as which areas have been protected by the government.

Animal Diversity Web (ADW)
The University of Michigan has designed an online database that covers animal natural history, distribution, classification, and conservation biology.


Corbet, G.B. and J.E. Hill, The Mammals of the Indomalayan Region. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Inger, Robert F. and Stuebing, Robert B. A Field Guide to the Frogs of Borneo. Natural History Publications in Association with Science and Technology Unit, 1997.

Lowman, Margaret D. and Nalani M. Nadkarni, eds. Forest Canopies. Academic Press, 1995.

MacKinnon, Dr. Kathy, and others. The Ecology of Kalimantan. The Ecology of Indonesia Series, Vol. III. Periplus Editions, 1996.


“Rain Forest: Heroes of the High Frontier.” National Geographic TV/Video, 1999.

Knott, Cheryl. “Orangutans in the Wild.” National Geographic, Aug. 1998, 30-57.

Webster, Donovan. “Searching the Depths of Borneo’s White Mountain.” National Geographic, Sept. 1998, 118-135.


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