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Hummingbirds: 'Brute' Strength Powers Dazzling Aerial Displays

Nov 19, 2015 05:06 PM EST
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Hummingbirds are small, iridescent skilled fliers that can out-hover a helicopter and out-maneuver a fighter pilot. So how do they pull off such amazing tricks? It all comes down to the bird's brute strength, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia.

To get a better idea of how the birds are able to outmaneuver their rivals, scientists examined 20 Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna), which can be found along the U.S. West Coast. Their study revealed that birds with a higher muscle capacity are able to accelerate faster and make more demanding, complex turns, according to a news release.

"We had expected wing morphology and body mass to have more of an influence on maneuverability so were surprised that muscle capacity is so important," Doug Altshuler, lead author from the University of British Columbia, explained in the release.

For their experiments, researchers attached a beaded weight necklace to each of the hummingbirds. Since the birds fly directly upwards, researchers were then able to measure the birds' muscle capacity based on its maximum weight-lifting abilities, or more simply, how many beads they were able to lift. After adding weight, researchers also filmed a two-hour solo flight of each bird to further analyze their aerial displays.

While their study sheds light on true complexity of tiny hummingbirds, it also has implications for the development of enhanced autonomous vehicles.

"A fundamental question is what we should focus on for engineering the autonomous vehicles predicted to be an increasing part of our lives," Altshuler added. "Our work suggests that for increasing maneuverability, we should focus on increasing the maximum force that the motors are able to produce."

Essentially, evolution has played a key role in a hummingbirds' ability to avoid predation by swiftly flying straight upwards and to consistently hover while sipping nectar. Additionally, airborne combat experienced when claiming and defending certain patches of flowers in the face of increased food competition may have also led to the development of the birds' dazzling moves.   

Their findings were recently published in the journal eLife. Researchers plan to further test how other tropical hummingbird species -- that vary greatly in body mass and wing morphology -- are able to perform intricate maneuvers based on their different muscle capacities. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13

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