Animal Falls: Science or Survival Instinct?

When an animal survives a fall is it because of science or their survival instinct? Maybe it is a little bit of both, read on to learn more.

Jul 10, 2024byHolly Ramsey

animal falls science survival instinctSome animals can experience a fall from great heights and walk away unscathed. How is this possible? For decades, scientists studied this and discovered some things that help these animals adapt and survive extreme falls. Keep reading to discover if science or survival instinct helps certain animals survive high falls. 

Size and Mass

brown jumping spider
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A main factor to determine if an animal can survive a high fall is the size and mass of the animal. The lighter and smaller the animal, the less force gravity puts on it. Thus, it falls slower. Smaller animals have a better chance of surviving a fall. This means a squirrel, cat, or spider has a better chance of surviving a fall than a dog or horse

Size and mass are not the only factors to consider, though. Some animals have evolved to possess features that help them reduce the impact when they fall. Squirrels have fluffy tails that slow their descent by increasing drag. By spreading out their bodies, squirrels create wind resistance and can glide through the air landing safely on the ground. 

Science Behind Animal Falls

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Animals can fall from high heights and survive, there are several instances of cats falling out a window or off a balcony and walking away with no injury. Some animals, such as cats, have a righting reflex. Their backbone is highly flexible, and their collarbone is non-functional, this allows them to twist their bodies and land on their feet. Their legs can absorb the shock of landing on their feet.

Their bodies have evolved to allow them to land without serious injuries or death. Squirrels have evolved and can spread out their bodies, allowing them to almost glide through the air and land safely. However, animals falling from extreme heights may not be so lucky unless they are small like spiders or ants that have almost no mass. 

Gravity and Mass

citronella ant on log
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When an animal falls from a significant height, there are two forces in play. The downward force of gravity and the mass of the animal. The air resistance uses both gravity and mass to increase the speed of an animal and pushes upward as the animal falls downward. When an animal starts falling the velocity is at zero, but the animal will fall at a constant speed called terminal velocity. 

Apparent Weight

orange white cat jumping
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Apparent weight is the magnitude of force acting against the gravitational force, it is not the magnitude of the gravitational force. A cat first jumping or falling from a high ledge or window has no air resistance force and has nothing pushing up on the gravitational force. For a few seconds, the cat is considered weightless. The cat’s righting instinct takes hold during this brief time of weightlessness and they rotate their body to land on its feet. 

Survival Instinct in Animals

bees on honeycomb
Image credit: describes instinct as an inborn impulse performed in response to an external stimulus. Survival instinct is unlearned but is a genetically determined behavior pattern. The actions of honeybees constructing their honeycomb are instinctual as is the impulse for a species to procreate. 

orange tabby cat leaping
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Many have theorized that survival instinct is an urge rather than a genetic inheritance. In the moment where survival must be fought for, an animal’s instinct kicks in. Animals surviving high falls may have innateness that keeps them from landing in odd positions and avoiding serious injury. Cats, for example, have evolved to have specific physical traits that allow them to twist in mid-air and land on their feet. Their survival instinct kicks in when they are falling through the air and must turn their body for a proper landing. 

Animal Genes Play a Role in Survival Instinct 

flying squirrel
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Instinct, especially survival instinct, is not a learned behavior. Instinct is in their genes and a little bit in how they interact with their environment.

Animals that can survive high falls have a deep survival instinct.  But also have evolved and adapted to their environment enabling them to successfully avoid serious injury or death when they do fall from a tree, rooftop, or other high ledge. The instinctual twisting in mid-air by cats to land on their feet is important, but their skeletal system has evolved to give them the ability to twist in mid-air. 

Science and survival instinct go hand-in-hand when considering how certain animals can survive high falls. From the tiniest spider to the large cat, these animals use a bit of science and instinct when they are falling. This does not take into account the animal hitting a solid object on the way down or landing on a hard surface like concrete. These can cause injury or even death.

Holly Ramsey
byHolly Ramsey

Holly is a 2nd generation dog breeder/trainer and has over 25 years of experience with several different breeds. She enjoys working with her Japanese Chin and Rough Collies and helping her mom and daughter with their chosen breeds. Most evenings, Holly is hanging out with her daughter watching movies, crafting, or playing with the fur-kids.