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Aerobatic Hummingbirds: How They Do It

Nov 24, 2014 05:36 PM EST
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If you have ever had the pleasure of witnessing a hummingbird flit around in the real world, you understand a very simple fact: these little guys are masters of flight. Now a team of researchers has used advanced computer simulations to help illustrate exactly how these birds fly with such nimble precision.
(Photo : Pixabay)

If you have ever had the pleasure of witnessing a hummingbird flit around in the real world, you understand a very simple fact: these little guys are masters of flight. Now a team of researchers has used advanced computer simulations to help illustrate exactly how these birds fly with such nimble precision.

The details of this work were recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Interestingly, this latest flight simulation found that hummingbirds boast flight strategies more akin to insects than birds that utilize a unique set of aerodynamic forces.

Because hummingbirds are so unique in their ability to flit around, hover, and turn on a dime, researchers have long struggled to find a point of reference from which to better understand how they fly. Some past models and simulations have found evidence that suggest hummingbird wings function almost like helicopter wings than anything else. However, this latest work, coming out the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University (VU), has found significant evidence that the insect comparison is stronger.

According to the study, although the structure of their wings is radically different, both insects and hummingbirds make use of unsteady airflow mechanisms to generate vortices that produce the lift they need to fly.

You can watch a video of how these birds churn the air around them achieve their aerodynamic control in the video below.

[Credit: VU/UMC]

To capture the stunning details, a UNC researcher dabbed the wings of a female hummingbird with a non-toxic paint that high-speed video software would easily be able to detect and track. This footage was taken from four different angles, and allowed the formation of a detailed 3D video model.

Using super-computers at the National Science Foundation's Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), and at Vanderbilt's Advanced Computing Center for Research and Education, the models were processed and build into a stunning simulation that showed each of the thousands of tiny air vortices as they wink in and out of existence.

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