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What are Some Arboreal Animals?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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Arboreal animals are animals that spend most or all of their time in trees. Many of them exist, and some are quite famous — the koala, lemur, flying squirrel, New World porcupine, tree sloth, spider monkey, tarsier, leopard, orangutan, chameleon, gecko, fruit bat, and many tree frogs, snakes, birds, and lizards. Animals of this type live in all the forests of the world, but are the most common in tropical forests, where the lush foliage and the canopy level creates a veritable floor of trees and leaves. In the nooks and crannies of trees, water collects in small pools, providing a source of moisture for a whole mini-ecosystem.

To climb in trees consistently and without falling, arboreal animals display a wide variety of adaptations, many of them shared between them. These include lithe bodies, clawed or sticky feet, and prehensile tails. Some, like tree sloths, have huge claws that let them hang from trees without expending any energy whatsoever. Some tree sloths cling so tenaciously to trees that they continue hanging for days after death.

The primary biodiversity hotspots for arboreal animals are the world's four largest rainforests — the Amazon, Congo, Madagascar, and Southeast Asia. The reason for the evolution of the arboreal lifestyle is obvious — trees are rich in animals and fruits, and allow their occupants to avoid predators on the ground. In fact, some animals, such as sloths, are so fearful of the ground that if their offspring accidentally falls, they will avoid going down to recover them. In rainforests, thick tree branches often rise 100 ft (30 m) or more above the ground, providing ample room to live and eat. Some animals spend their entire lives jumping from tree to tree, never touching the ground.

One of the most interesting adaptations displayed by arboreal animals are stretchy membranes between their legs or toes that allow for extensive gliding. While flight has only evolved independently four times in the history of nature (insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats), gliding has evolved dozens of times. Some gliding animals include the flying squirrel (found across Eurasia and North America, American species rarely seen due to their nocturnal lifestyle), flying frogs (a trait which has evolved independently in more than 3,400 species), and Draco lizards, which can glide for up to 100 m (328 ft) under optimal conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines an animal as arboreal?

An arboreal animal is one that spends the majority of its life in trees. These creatures are adapted to living in this vertical environment, exhibiting specialized features such as strong limbs, prehensile tails, or gripping claws to navigate the canopy. Their tree-centric lifestyle is crucial for foraging, shelter, and evading ground-based predators.

Can you name some common arboreal mammals?

Common arboreal mammals include various species of primates like monkeys, apes, and lemurs, which are adept at tree living. Squirrels and tree-dwelling marsupials like koalas and some possums also exemplify arboreal mammals. These animals have evolved to exploit the rich resources available in forest canopies worldwide.

Are there any arboreal reptiles?

Yes, many reptiles are arboreal, such as the green iguana and various species of chameleons and geckos. These reptiles have developed unique adaptations like adhesive toe pads, prehensile tails, and camouflaging abilities, allowing them to thrive in the treetops. According to studies, arboreal reptiles often exhibit remarkable agility and specialized hunting strategies.

Do birds count as arboreal animals?

While many birds are tree-dwellers, they are typically not classified as arboreal because the term is generally reserved for non-avian animals. However, birds like parrots, woodpeckers, and owls spend significant time in trees for nesting and feeding, and their behaviors are closely tied to the arboreal habitat.

What adaptations do arboreal animals have for living in trees?

Arboreal animals boast a range of adaptations for tree living, including strong, flexible limbs for climbing and grasping branches, sharp claws or nails for grip, and in some cases, prehensile tails for additional support. Many also have enhanced balance and spatial awareness to navigate the complex three-dimensional environment of the forest canopy.

How do arboreal animals contribute to their ecosystems?

Arboreal animals play vital roles in their ecosystems, such as pollinating flowers, dispersing seeds, and maintaining plant diversity. They also serve as prey for other species and help control insect populations. Their movements through the canopy can create pathways and microhabitats that benefit other organisms, underlining their ecological importance.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By anon312236 — On Jan 06, 2013

This was really helpful. Oh, and save the rainforest! By the way, you should look up red pandas even though they live in the taiga.

By JackWhack — On Dec 02, 2012

I'm a little surprised that tree frogs are arboreal animals, because even though they have the word “tree” in their name, I frequently see them hanging out in other locations. My pond is just full of them, and they seem to gather there at twilight to sing noisy songs together.

I've also seen them clinging to the outside of my windows. I can see their little suction cups on their feet.

By kylee07drg — On Dec 02, 2012

Some bears are arboreal animals. I've read that certain kinds will build nests in trees and sleep there.

It's also common for bear cubs to sleep in trees. This keeps them from being vulnerable to predators.

By feasting — On Dec 02, 2012

@DylanB – Sugar gliders cannot be happy in a cage, even the big tower cages that people often keep them in. They cannot glide through the air very far at all.

One big drawback to owning a sugar glider is that they prey on small animals like birds and gross insects like spiders and grubworms. So, you have to feed them live food. I don't know if your son would be queasy about this or not, but for me, it was all it took to convince me not to get one.

They also like to suck on trees to get sap. Unless you have the means to grow a live tree in your home, you can't give him this opportunity.

By DylanB — On Dec 01, 2012

Does anyone here have any experience with sugar gliders? My son wants one of these arboreal animals, but since they live in trees in the wild, I don't see how it can survive in a small cage. I need information that will help me talk him out of getting one.

By naturesgurl3 — On Aug 18, 2010

One of the most popular arboreal animals in captivity is the monkey!

These little guys are so cute, and many people can spend hours watching them at play.

It really makes you think though, to see how advanced their play and interaction is -- perhaps we're not so far from being arboreal animals ourselves!

By CopperPipe — On Aug 18, 2010

Many arboreal animals have very specific purposes and roles in their local ecosystem, kind of their own niche. All animals have their niche, but arboreal animals are unique in that they often serve to fill several niches, while other types of animals may only serve one or two purposes to their surrounding environment.

By StreamFinder — On Aug 18, 2010

Unfortunately, many arboreal animals are endangered because of deforestation and urban crawl.

Although there are many organizations that focus on saving arboreal animals, it's still easy for people to forget how serious the situation is.

So remember people, once an animal's extinct, it's not coming back.

Do your part to save animals from extinction.

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics,...

Learn more
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