60-Second Science

Birds and Bugs Use Same Flight Manual

A report in the journal Science shows that seven different types of flying animals all turn using the same technique, and that those with similar wingspan-to-body-lengths need the same number of wing flaps. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Thrill-seeking stunt pilots spend years learning to perform maneuvers that birds and bees know how to do from birth. Now a new study in the journal Science shows that, although birds and bugs don’t go to flight school, it’s like they’re reading from the same manual when it comes to making turns.

If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird or seen a bat chase after a moth, you know that critters that flap their wings to fly are amazing aerial acrobats, capable of hovering near a flower or turning on a dime. But how do they do it? And does the tiniest fruit fly use the same tricks as a hummingbird or a bat?

The scientists studied videos of seven different kinds of winged beasts, from bluebottle flies to a cockatoo. And they found that they all used a technique called flapping counter-torque to recover from a turn. So, when a bird banks right, its left wing moves faster on the downstroke while the right is faster on the upstroke, which slows the animal’s rotation. And no matter what their size, critters with a similar wingspan to body length ratio, like a fruitfly and a hummingbird, need the same number of flaps to finish a turn. And you thought such aeronautical insights would remain hidden until pigs fly.

—Karen Hopkin

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