Arboreal locomotion
Arboreal locomotion is the locomotion
Animal locomotion
Animal locomotion, which is the act of self-propulsion by an animal, has many manifestations, including running, swimming, jumping and flying. Animals move for a variety of reasons, such as to find food, a mate, or a suitable microhabitat, and to escape predators...

 of animals in trees. In every habitat in which trees are present, animals have evolved to move in them. Some animals may only scale trees occasionally, while others are exclusively arboreal. These habitats pose numerous mechanical challenges to animals moving through them, leading to a variety of anatomical, behavioral and ecological consequences. Furthermore, many of these same principles may be applied to climbing without trees, such as on rock piles or mountains.

The earliest known tetrapod
Tetrapods are vertebrate animals having four limbs. Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are all tetrapods; even snakes and other limbless reptiles and amphibians are tetrapods by descent. The earliest tetrapods evolved from the lobe-finned fishes in the Devonian...

 with specializations that adapted it for climbing trees, was Suminia, a synapsid
Synapsids are a group of animals that includes mammals and everything more closely related to mammals than to other living amniotes. They are easily separated from other amniotes by having an opening low in the skull roof behind each eye, leaving a bony arch beneath each, accounting for their name...

 of the late Permian
The PermianThe term "Permian" was introduced into geology in 1841 by Sir Sir R. I. Murchison, president of the Geological Society of London, who identified typical strata in extensive Russian explorations undertaken with Edouard de Verneuil; Murchison asserted in 1841 that he named his "Permian...

, about 260 million years ago.

Some invertebrate animals are exclusively arboreal in habitat, for example, see tree snail
Tree snail
Tree snail is a common name that is applied to various kinds of tropical air-breathing land snails, pulmonate gastropod mollusks that have shells, and that live in trees, in other words, are exclusively arboreal in habitat....



Arboreal habitats pose numerous mechanical challenges to animals moving in them, which have been solved diverse ways. These challenges include moving on narrow branches, moving up and down inclines, balancing, crossing gaps, and dealing with obstructions


Moving along a narrow surface poses special difficulties to animals. During locomotion on the ground, the location of the center of mass may swing from side to side, but during arboreal locomotion, this would result in the center of mass moving beyond the edge of the branch, resulting in a tendency to topple over. Additionally, foot placement is constrained by the need to make contact with the narrow branch. This narrowness severely restricts the range of movements and postures an animal can use to move.


Branches are frequently oriented at an angle to gravity in arboreal habitats, including being vertical, which poses special problems. As an animal moves up an inclined branch, they must fight the force of gravity to raise their body, making movement more difficult. Conversely, as the animal descends, it must also fight gravity to control its descent and prevent falling. Descent can be particularly problematic for many animals, and highly arboreal species often have specialized methods for controlling their descent.


Due to the height of many branches and the potentially disastrous consequences of a fall, balance is of primary importance to arboreal animals. On horizontal and gently sloped branches, the primary problem is tipping to the side due to the narrow base of support. The narrower the branch, the greater the difficulty in balancing a given animal faces. On steep and vertical branches, tipping becomes less of an issue, and pitching backwards or slipping downwards becomes the most likely failure. In this case, large-diameter branches pose a greater challenge, since the animal cannot place its forelimbs closer to the center of the branch than its hindlimbs.

Crossing gaps

Branches are not continuous, and any arboreal animal must be able to move between gaps in the branches, or even between trees. This can be accomplished by reaching across gaps, or by leaping across them.


Arboreal habitats often contain many obstructions, both in the form of branches emerging from the one being moved on and other branches impinging on the space the animal needs to move through. These obstructions may impede locomotion, or may be used as additional contact points to enhance it, but only one laboratory study has ever quantified the results of obstructions.

Anatomical specializations

Arboreal organisms display many specializations for dealing with the mechanical challenges of moving through their habitats.

Limb length

Arboreal animals frequently have elongated limbs that help them cross gaps, reach fruit or other resources, test the firmness of support ahead, and in some cases, to brachiate
Brachiation is a form of arboreal locomotion in which primates swing from tree limb to tree limb using only their arms.- Brachiators :...

. However, some species of lizard have reduced limb size that helps them avoid limb movement being obstructed by impinging branches.

Prehensile tails

Many arboreal species, such as tree porcupine
Porcupines are rodents with a coat of sharp spines, or quills, that defend or camouflage them from predators. They are indigenous to the Americas, southern Asia, and Africa. Porcupines are the third largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and the beaver. Most porcupines are about long, with...

s, chameleon
Chameleons are a distinctive and highly specialized clade of lizards. They are distinguished by their parrot-like zygodactylous feet, their separately mobile and stereoscopic eyes, their very long, highly modified, and rapidly extrudable tongues, their swaying gait, the possession by many of a...

s, Silky Anteater
Silky Anteater
The Silky Anteater or Pygmy Anteater is a species of anteater from Central and South America, ranging from extreme southern Mexico south to Brazil Delta Amacuro Venezuela and possibly Paraguay...

s, spider monkey
Spider monkey
Spider monkeys of the genus Ateles are New World monkeys in the subfamily Atelinae, family Atelidae. Like other atelines, they are found in tropical forests of Central and South America, from southern Mexico to Brazil...

s, and possum
A possum is any of about 70 small to medium-sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi .Possums are quadrupedal diprotodont marsupials with long tails...

s, use prehensile tail
Prehensile tail
A prehensile tail is the tail of an animal that has adapted to be able to grasp and/or hold objects. Fully prehensile tails can be used to hold and manipulate objects, and in particular to aid arboreal creatures in finding and eating food in the trees...

s to grasp branches. In the spider monkey
Spider monkey
Spider monkeys of the genus Ateles are New World monkeys in the subfamily Atelinae, family Atelidae. Like other atelines, they are found in tropical forests of Central and South America, from southern Mexico to Brazil...

 and crested gecko, the tip of the tail has either a bare patch or adhesive pad, which provide increased friction.


Claws can be used to interact with rough substrates and re-orient the direction of forces the animal applies. This is what allows squirrel
Squirrels belong to a large family of small or medium-sized rodents called the Sciuridae. The family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots , flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa and have been introduced to Australia...

s to climb tree trunks that are so large as to be essentially flat, from the perspective of such a small animal. However, claws can interfere with an animal's ability to grasp very small branches, as they may wrap too far around and prick the animal's own paw.


Adhesion is an alternative to claws, which works best on smooth surfaces. Wet adhesion is common in tree frog
Tree frog
Hylidae is a wide-ranging family of frogs commonly referred to as "tree frogs and their allies". However, the hylids include a diversity of frog species, many of which do not live in trees, but are terrestrial or semi-aquatic.-Characteristics:...

s and arboreal salamanders, and functions either by suction or by capilary adhesion. Dry adhesion is best typified by the specialized toes of gecko
Geckos are lizards belonging to the infraorder Gekkota, found in warm climates throughout the world. They range from 1.6 cm to 60 cm....

s, which use van der Waals force
Van der Waals force
In physical chemistry, the van der Waals force , named after Dutch scientist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, is the sum of the attractive or repulsive forces between molecules other than those due to covalent bonds or to the electrostatic interaction of ions with one another or with neutral...

s to adhere to many substrates, even glass.


Frictional gripping is used by primates, relying upon hairless fingertips. Squeezing the branch between the fingertips generates frictional force that holds the animal's hand to the branch. However, this type of grip depends upon the angle of the frictional force, thus upon the diameter of the branch, with larger branches resulting in reduced gripping ability.
Animals other than primates that use gripping in climbing include the chameleon, which has mitten-like grasping feet, and many birds that grip branches in perching or moving about.

Reversible feet

To control descent, especially down large diameter branches, some arboreal animals such as squirrel
Squirrels belong to a large family of small or medium-sized rodents called the Sciuridae. The family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots , flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa and have been introduced to Australia...

s have evolved highly mobile ankle joints that permit rotating the foot into a 'reversed' posture. This allows the claws to hook into the rough surface of the bark, opposing the force of gravity.

Low center of mass

Many arboreal species lower their center of mass to reduce pitching and toppling movement when climbing. This may be accomplished by postural changes, altered body proportions, or smaller size.

Small size

Small size provides many advantages to arboreal species, such as increasing the relative size of branches to the animal, lower center of mass, increased stability, lower mass (allowing movement on smaller branches), and the ability to move through more cluttered habitat.

Hanging under perches

Some species of primate, bats, and all species of sloth achieve passive stability by hanging beneath the branch. Both pitching and tipping become irrelevant, as the only method of failure would be losing their grip.

Behavioral specializations

Arboreal species have behaviors specialized for moving in their habitats, most prominently in terms of posture and gait. Specifically, arboreal mammals take longer steps, extend their limbs further forwards and backwards during a step, adopt a more 'crouched' posture to lower their center of mass, and use a diagonal sequence gait
Gait is the pattern of movement of the limbs of animals, including humans, during locomotion over a solid substrate. Most animals use a variety of gaits, selecting gait based on speed, terrain, the need to maneuver, and energetic efficiency...


Ecological consequences

Arboreal locomotion allows animals access to different resources, depending upon their abilities. Larger species may be restricted to larger-diameter branches that can support their weight, while smaller species may avoid competition by moving in the narrower branches.

Climbing without trees

Many animals climb in other habitats, such as in rock piles or mountains, and in those habitats, many of the same principles apply due to inclines, narrow ledges, and balance issues. However, less research has been conducted on the specific demands of locomotion in these habitats.

Perhaps the most exceptional of the animals that move on steep or even near vertical rock faces by careful balancing and leaping are the various types of mountain dwelling caprid
Goat antelope
A goat-antelope or caprid is any of the species of mostly medium-sized bovids that make up the subfamily Caprinae , part of the Bovidae family of ruminants...

 such as the Barbary sheep
Barbary sheep
The Barbary Sheep is a species of caprid native to rocky mountains in North Africa. Six subspecies have been described. Although it is rare in its native North Africa, it has been introduced to North America, southern Europe and elsewhere...

, markhor
The Markhor is a large species of wild goat that is found in northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan , India, southern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan...

, yak
The yak, Bos grunniens or Bos mutus, is a long-haired bovine found throughout the Himalayan region of south Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau and as far north as Mongolia and Russia. In addition to a large domestic population, there is a small, vulnerable wild yak population...

, ibex, tahr
Tahrs are three species of large Asian ungulates related to the wild goat. Until recently the three species were believed to be closely related and were placed in a single genus, Hemitragus. Genetic studies have proved that the three tahrs are not as closely related as thought earlier...

, rocky mountain goat, and chamois
The chamois, Rupicapra rupicapra, is a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe, including the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the European Alps, the Tatra Mountains, the Balkans, parts of Turkey, and the Caucasus. The chamois has also been introduced to the South Island of New Zealand...

. Their adaptations may include a soft rubbery pad between their hooves for grip, hooves with sharp keratin rims for lodging in small footholds, and prominent dew claws. The snow leopard
Snow Leopard
The snow leopard is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of South Asia and Central Asia...

, being a predator of such mountain caprids, also has spectacular balance and leaping abilities; being able to leap up to ~17m (~50 ft). Other balancers and leapers include the mountain zebra
Mountain Zebra
The Mountain Zebra, Equus zebra, is a threatened species of equid native to south-western Angola, Namibia and South Africa. It has two subspecies, the Cape Mountain Zebra and Hartmann's Mountain Zebra , though it has been suggested these should be considered separate species.-Taxonomy:In 2004,...

, mountain tapir
Mountain Tapir
The Mountain Tapir or Woolly Tapir is the smallest of the four species of tapir and is the only one to live outside of tropical rainforests in the wild...

, and hyrax
A hyrax is any of four species of fairly small, thickset, herbivorous mammals in the order Hyracoidea. The rock hyrax Procavia capensis, the yellow-spotted rock hyrax Heterohyrax brucei, the western tree hyrax Dendrohyrax dorsalis, and the southern tree hyrax, Dendrohyrax arboreus live in Africa...



Brachiation is a form of arboreal locomotion in which primates swing from tree limb to tree limb using only their arms.- Brachiators :...

 is a specialized form of arboreal locomotion, used by primates to moves very rapidly while hanging beneath branches. Arguably the epitome of arboreal locomotion, it involves swinging with the arms from one handhold to another. Only a few species are brachiator
Brachiators are a type of primate mostly from the family Hylobatidae, which includes gibbons. Brachiators use their arms to move from tree branch to tree branch, through a process called brachiation. Their arms are longer than their legs, and are much more powerful.-Evolution:Brachiators began as...

s, and all of these are primates; it is a major means of locomotion among spider monkey
Spider monkey
Spider monkeys of the genus Ateles are New World monkeys in the subfamily Atelinae, family Atelidae. Like other atelines, they are found in tropical forests of Central and South America, from southern Mexico to Brazil...

s and gibbon
Gibbons are apes in the family Hylobatidae . The family is divided into four genera based on their diploid chromosome number: Hylobates , Hoolock , Nomascus , and Symphalangus . The extinct Bunopithecus sericus is a gibbon or gibbon-like ape which, until recently, was thought to be closely related...

s, and is occasionally used by female orangutan
Orangutans are the only exclusively Asian genus of extant great ape. The largest living arboreal animals, they have proportionally longer arms than the other, more terrestrial, great apes. They are among the most intelligent primates and use a variety of sophisticated tools, also making sleeping...

s. Gibbons are the experts of this mode of locomotion, swinging from branch to branch distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), and traveling at speeds of as much as 56 km/h (35 mph).

Gliding between trees

To bridge gaps between trees, many animals such as the flying squirrel have become adapted to glide
Flying and gliding animals
A number of animals have evolved aerial locomotion, either by powered flight or by gliding. Flying and gliding animals have evolved separately many times, without any single ancestor. Flight has evolved at least four times, in the insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. Gliding has evolved on many...


Limbless climbing

Many species of snake are highly arboreal, and some have evolved specialized musculature for this habitat. While moving in arboreal habitats, snakes move slowly along bare branches using a specialized form of concertina locomotion
Concertina movement
Concertina movement is the movement occurring in snakes and other legless organisms that consists of gripping or anchoring with portions of the body while pulling/pushing other sections in the direction of movement. Each point on the snake's body goes through alternating cycles of static contact...

, but when secondary branches emerge from the branch being moved on, snakes use lateral undulation, a much faster mode. As a result, snakes perform best on small perches in cluttered environments, while limbed organisms seem to do best on large perches in uncluttered environments.

Arboreal animals

Many species of animals are arboreal, far too many to list individually. This list is of prominently or predominantly arboreal species and higher taxa.
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