The intricacies of insect flight are astounding. But the animals' small size and swift movements make detailed studies of their aerodynamic acrobatics difficult. Now results of a study of free-flying butterflies published today in the journal Nature suggest that the insects rely on a variety of techniques, often employed in successive strokes, over the course of a flight.

R. B. Srygley and Adrian L.R. Thomas of the University of Oxford trained red admiral butterflies to fly toward a fake flower at the end of a wind tunnel. Photographs snapped as the insects moved through wisps of smoke in the chamber provided the researchers with an opportunity to analyze their flight patterns. Specifically, the scientists matched patterns in the airflow around the butterflies' wings to standard mathematical patterns with known properties. They determined that the creatures use a number of "unconventional aerodynamic mechanisms to generate force." What is more astounding, writes Rafal Zbikowski of Cranfield University in an accompanying commentary, is that "the butterflies appear to switch effortlessly among these mechanisms from stroke to stroke." Indeed, he concludes, if engineers ever succeed in understanding just how insects exercise control over such a wide range of abilities, "there will be a revolution in aeronautics."