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Step aside, Wolverine and Spider-Man: Geckos are real life superheroes—with a growing list of natural powers.

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, reveals how the wide-eyed reptiles walk across water, moving at impressive speeds to stay afloat.

While a majority of gecko species use adhesive toe pads to stick to most surfaces (from smooth glass to rugged tree bark), their supernatural ability to cross water was, until now, a mystery.

“Animals move in such weird and different ways, and geckos are a good example of that,” according to first author Jasmine Nirody, a biophysicist at the University of Oxford and Rockefeller University. “Geckos make use of several locomotive modes when running across water, which makes it more difficult to characterize.”

The mouse-sized lizards are too big to float on water using only surface tension, like insects, but too small to rely on foot slapping, as basilisks might.

“The gecko’s size places them in an intermediate regime—a middle ground, Nirody said in a statement. “They can’t generate enough force to run along the surface without sinking, so the fact they can run across water is really surprising.”

In experiments with flat-tailed house geckos, she saw that the animal’s legs slap and stroke the water, creating air pockets that keep most of their little bodies afloat. The action is not dissimilar to how they run on land.

Water-repellent skin also helps, while swishing tails can stabilize and propel  movement forward.

“All are important to some extent, and geckos are unique in combining all these,” senior study author and University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Full said.

“Even knowing the extensive list of locomotive capabilities that geckos have in their arsenal, we were still very surprised at the speed at which they could dark across the water’s surface,” Nirody added. “The way that they combine several modalities to perform this feat is really remarkable.”

This new level of understanding, she said, could inspire high-tech designs.

And it wouldn’t be the first time: Simon Fraser University researchers previously created a robot tank that scales vertical surfaces in the same way a gecko does.

The University of Cambridge is also holding out hope for large-scale bio-inspired adhesives that could let humans climb to new heights.

“Nature has so much to teach us. It’s built all these amazing machines to look at and learn from,” Nirody said.

Study co-authors include Judy Jinn, National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at UC Berkeley; Thomas Libby of UC Berkeley and the University of Washington; Georgia Tech graduate research assistant Timothy Lee and associate professor David Hu; and Max Planck Institute research group leader Ardian Jusufi.

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