Hummingbirds are very interesting creatures, especially with regard to their incredible flight skills. Researchers of a new study have uncovered some of the mechanisms that make the hummingbird the agile flier that it is.
Catching Hummingbirds In The Tropics
In the past, studies of other flying creatures such as bats and other birds showed that size actually has an effect on the flight capability of the creature, wherein bigger sizes may result in detriments to flight. However, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia found that hummingbirds may be an exception.
In order to gather their wealth of data, researchers captured over 200 hummingbirds of 25 different species from Central and South America and used computer vision technology to record the inflight movements and maneuvers of the birds. Over 330,000 maneuvers were recorded, including repeated maneuvers for each bird. Once the recording was done, the birds were released back into the wild.
The data gathering wasn't quite as easy as simply capturing the birds because of the conditions the researchers were in. In fact, they even had to leave their improvised laboratory in Peru for two days because it was overrun by army ants. Still, they were able to gather the data that shed light into the hummingbirds' impressive flight skill and agility.
Of Wings And Muscles
As it turns out, larger species of hummingbirds are able to adapt to their size and are even able to outmaneuver the smaller species despite their larger size. Unlike other animals, the larger size did not hinder the creatures' flight at all. Further analysis revealed that their flight agility is thanks to the birds' development of increased muscle mass, which compensates for their larger size.
Specifically, the larger muscle mass, which allows the birds to lift more weight, was found to be the key in fast acceleration, whereas the birds' body mass to wing ratio proved crucial in making quick rotations and sharp turns. Furthermore, they found that the birds are capable of adjusting to effects of altitude when they were studied at both high and low elevation. With the exception of making complex turns, it seems the birds are able to easily compensate for the effects of altitude.
The find is interesting especially since different hummingbird species vary greatly in size. As if the hummingbirds are not fascinating enough, the researchers' data reveals how, with evolution and skill, even the larger hummingbirds can adapt to perform incredible feats of flight.
"The hummingbirds tend to play to their strengths, especially with complex moves. For example, species that have the ability to power through turns tend to use more arcing trajectories, and they shy away from performing turns in which they decelerate to turn on a dime," said senior author Douglas Altshuler. Essentially, hummingbirds are able to maximize their inherent traits with learned skills.
The study is published in the journal Science.