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Aerodynamics of the hovering hummingbird


Despite profound musculoskeletal differences, hummingbirds (Trochilidae) are widely thought to employ aerodynamic mechanisms similar to those used by insects. The kinematic symmetry of the hummingbird upstroke and downstroke1,2,3 has led to the assumption that these halves of the wingbeat cycle contribute equally to weight support during hovering, as exhibited by insects of similar size4. This assumption has been applied, either explicitly or implicitly, in widely used aerodynamic models1,5,6,7 and in a variety of empirical tests8,9. Here we provide measurements of the wake of hovering rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) obtained with digital particle image velocimetry that show force asymmetry: hummingbirds produce 75% of their weight support during the downstroke and only 25% during the upstroke. Some of this asymmetry is probably due to inversion of their cambered wings during upstroke. The wake of hummingbird wings also reveals evidence of leading-edge vortices created during the downstroke, indicating that they may operate at Reynolds numbers sufficiently low to exploit a key mechanism typical of insect hovering10,11. Hummingbird hovering approaches that of insects, yet remains distinct because of effects resulting from an inherently dissimilar—avian—body plan.

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Figure 1: DPIV methodology.
Figure 2: Flow field vorticity.
Figure 3: Hummingbird wing presentation and flow field.

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We thank B. Klopfenstein for her help with the experiments. This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Murdock Charitable Trust.

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Correspondence to Douglas R. Warrick.

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Warrick, D., Tobalske, B. & Powers, D. Aerodynamics of the hovering hummingbird. Nature 435, 1094–1097 (2005).

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