New study: how the hummingbird performs stunning feats of aerobatics

Hummingbird in flight
Hummingbird in flight

New study reported by Science Daily.


The sight of a tiny hummingbird hovering in front of a flower and then darting to another with lightning speed amazes and delights. But it also leaves watchers with a persistent question: How do they do it?

Now, the most detailed, three-dimensional aerodynamic simulation of hummingbird flight conducted to date has definitively demonstrated that the hummingbird achieves its nimble aerobatic abilities through a unique set of aerodynamic forces that are more closely aligned to those found in flying insects than to other birds.

The new supercomputer simulation was produced by a pair of mechanical engineers at Vanderbilt University who teamed up with a biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is described in the article “Three-dimensional flow and lift characteristics of a hovering ruby-throated hummingbird” published this fall in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

For some time researchers have been aware of the similarities between hummingbird and insect flight, but some experts have supported an alternate model which proposed that hummingbird’s wings have aerodynamic properties similar to helicopter blades. However, the new realistic simulation demonstrates that the tiny birds make use of unsteady airflow mechanisms, generating invisible vortices of air that produce the lift they need to hover and flit from flower to flower.

You might think that if the hummingbird simply beats its wings fast enough and hard enough it can push enough air downward to keep its small body afloat. But, according to the simulation, lift production is much trickier than that.

For example, as the bird pulls its wings forward and down, tiny vortices form over the leading and trailing edges and then merge into a single large vortex, forming a low-pressure area that provides lift. In addition, the tiny birds further enhance the amount of lift they produce by pitching up their wings (rotate them along the long axis) as they flap.

Hummingbirds perform another neat aerodynamic trick — one that sets them apart from their larger feathered relatives. They not only generate positive lift on the downstroke, but they also generate lift on the upstroke by inverting their wings. As the leading edge begins moving backwards, the wing beneath it rotates around so the top of the wing becomes the bottom and bottom becomes the top. This allows the wing to form a leading edge vortex as it moves backward generating positive lift.

According to the simulation, the downstroke produces most of the thrust but that is only because the hummingbird puts more energy into it. The upstroke produces only 30 percent as much lift but it takes only 30 percent as much energy, making the upstroke equally as aerodynamically efficient as the more powerful downstroke.

Large birds, by contrast, generate almost all of their lift on the downstroke. They pull in their wings toward their bodies to reduce the amount of negative lift they produce while flapping upward.

Awesome design in nature!

So the question I have from reading the article is this. Do birds and flying insects have a recent common ancestor? I don’t have too many friends who can answer this for me, but I asked one of them and they both said there is no recent common ancestor for hummingbirds and flying insects. So this looks like another example of convergence – common design in two animals that don’t share a recent common ancestor.

3 thoughts on “New study: how the hummingbird performs stunning feats of aerobatics”

  1. Funny how all the animals are so perfectly fitted for what they do and how similar features are found among completely different organisms. It’s almost like it was designed that way with a designer who reused designs based on what the organism needs to accomplish.


  2. The common explanation I see is that nature or evolution considered this an important adaptation. An undirected process that lacks the capacity to reason ‘considered’ it important? This may seem odd for naturalists to make claims of intentionality but that is the best way to describe what’s going on. They would rather assume the observation of intent is actually an illusion that our brain is somehow wired to falsely recognize. In science we cannot assume an observation is illusory unless there is sufficient reason or evidence to support that conclusion. If we could then any observation could and should be dismissed; of course that would halt scientific research.

    I like how the movie Flight shows the attention to detail in the design of the humming bird. If naturalistic convergent evolution was true then all the adaptations would have to happen simultaneously without deleterious mutations making the bird unfit to survive. Even if a pair of humming birds could produce hundreds of offspring per year they couldn’t reach such a perfect level of evolution. It’s therefore reasonable to identify the observation of intent as true and part of a directed evolution or design.


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