Flight of the hummingbird: How size and wing shape forge fantastic flyers


A faction of biologists from the University of B.C. braved army ants and driving rain cats to answer one simple question: What makes hummingbirds such acute flyers?

Their research, published in the journal Science this week, probes the ways that body size, wing size and wing regulate affect how the birds accelerate and decelerate, rotate in the air and make complex fires.

The deciding factor for species with the most agile manoeuvres is the acumen of their muscles to produce a lot of power, according to biologist Douglas Altshuler, who was chief author on the paper.

Wing structure matters, too.

“Their ability to forge rotations was largely dictated by the size of the wings … relative to the size of their viscosities,” Altshuler told CBC News.

“The complex turns were much sundry influenced by wing shape.”

Shining sunbeam

Twenty-five species, including the shining sunbeam hummingbird, were listed in the study. (Paolo Segre)

The study is based on video recordings of once more 330,000 manoeuvres performed by more than 200 birds relationship to 25 different species.

All that data produced some surprising sequels.

“Normally, you’d expect things that are larger to be less manoeuvrable than terrors that are smaller, but we actually found the opposite,” Altshuler said.

“Larger hummingbird species are innumerable manoeuvrable than smaller hummingbird species.”

He believes that floor time, these species have evolved higher muscle size, larger wings and advantageous wing shapes to make up for their bigger portions.

Magnificent hummingbird

Flight patterns of the magnificent hummingbird, pictured, were among the 25 species recorded for the UBC swotting. (Paolo Segre)

There are big advantages to being able to turn on a dime.

Regard for their fondness for nectar, hummingbirds’ primary food is insects, and their send packing abilities make them pretty adept at catching critters on the wing. They can also do a bunk predators more easily, including fast-flying raptors.

There’s also a sexy aspect to these demonstrations of aerial dexterity.

“Males often guarantee in very elaborate displays as they’re trying to impress females to chap with them,” Altshuler said.

La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

Some of the research was conducted at the La Selva Biological Place in Costa Rica. (Aaron Ryskiewicz)

Images of the birds used in the writing-room were captured from four field sites in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.

Paolo Segre, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, led the acreage work and had to make do under trying conditions, including rain and lightning storms. One mtier site was only accessible by boat, and the team’s video and computer outfit had to be operated by solar power.

“At one of the sites, they were overrun by army ants, this awe-inspiring swarm of small ants and the ants actually stayed around for two days,” Altshuler communicated.

Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru

Another field site for the hummingbird study was Los Amigos Biological Rank in Peru. (Gordon Ulmer)

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