Planet Earth

8 Creatures That Live in Thin Air

The atmosphere supports a thriving ecosystem above our heads — perhaps 100,000 birds, bugs and bacteria in every cubic meter.

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Photo Credits: John Downer, Nature Picture Library

Floating and flying above us are not only the usual suspects — birds, bats, insects — but countless microscopic creatures as well. The disciplines of aerobiology and aeroecology explore how animals, plants and other organisms live in, move through and interact with the aerosphere — the part of Earth’s atmosphere that supports life.

Scientists recently documented how migrating bar-headed geese could fly over the Himalayas at an altitude of up to almost 24,000 feet above sea level. The birds accomplish the feat by timing their trips to coincide with the presence of cooler air, in which it’s easier to fly and breathe. 

Photo Credits: Konrad Wothe/Minden Pictures

Air as an environment can lead to surprising interactions between living and nonliving things. When positively charged insects fly close to a spiderweb, for example, electrostatic charges cause the web to move toward them to actively capture the hapless fliers.

Photo Credits: Ciabou Hany/Nature Production/Minden Pictures

Fungi don’t leave themselves to the whims of the wind when disseminating the spores they use to reproduce: Mushrooms create their own breeze by releasing moisture with the spores. The water cools the air, creating a tiny convection current.

Photo Credits: Russ Kerr/Majesty of Birds

An average North American purple martin eats about 20,000 insects each year, with the whole species devouring about 412 billion bugs per year.

Photo Credits: Michael Durham/Minden Pictures

Observing big brown bats as they repeatedly fly through a room filled with obstacles, researchers have concluded the bats create a mental map that helps them navigate a familiar area. 

Photo Credits: Mehmet Hanay

Alpine swifts, which soar over Europe and Africa, are truly at home in the aerosphere. Surviving largely on insects, these birds can stay aloft for nearly seven months at a time.

Photo Credits: Georgia Tech/Gary Meek

Bacteria have been found thriving 4 to 6 miles above Earth’s surface. The microbes can ride the wind from continent to continent.

Photo Credits: Trofimov Denis/Shutterstock

More experienced bumblebees fly farther, faster and straighter when searching for food than naïve ones, which tend to fly in loops as they learn the best search strategy.

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