Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Do the Twist

Arguably the most adept fliers in the world are those animals who carry flight as their namesake: the dipteran insects, i.e. the flies.

Alexander Wild (whose photography you should check out if you are not already familiar) recently posted some new shots of fruit flies approach a fungal feeding patch.  I am particularly fond of this shot.

Note how the plane of the wings are almost perpendicular to the direction of travel at the moment the shot was taken.  The degree of wing rotation used by insects, particularly during landing and takeoff, can be quite extraordinary.  Sadly, the precise effects and roles of wing rotation in animal flight are poorly understood.  Some good work has been done with bees and flies, but even there we are still quite naive.  According to Sharon Swartz of Brown University, next to nothing is known about the role of wing twisting in bats.  The knowledge base situation is only marginally better in birds.

Those looking for a great experimental project on animal flight: think about working on wing twist.  Theoreticians [which I suppose includes myself, though my work is about a 50/50 split] have some good ideas of what should happen, but we need experimentalists to play it out and get the real nuts and bolts.

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