Arboreal animals often leap through complex canopies to travel and avoid predators. Their success at making split-second, potentially life-threatening decisions of biomechanical capability depends on their skillful use of acrobatic maneuvers and learning from past efforts. Here, we found that free-ranging fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) leaping across unfamiliar, simulated branches decided where to launch by balancing a trade-off between gap distance and branch-bending compliance. Squirrels quickly learned to modify impulse generation upon repeated leaps from unfamiliar, compliant beams. A repertoire of agile landing maneuvers enabled targeted leaping without falling. Unanticipated adaptive landing and leaping “parkour” behavior revealed an innovative solution for particularly challenging leaps. Squirrels deciding and learning how to launch and land demonstrates the synergistic roles of biomechanics and cognition in robust gap-crossing strategies.
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