Hummingbirds 'shape-shift' wings for precise flight

August 7, 2014, 1 p.m.
hummingbird at flower

Photo: Larry Keller/MNN Flickr Group

How do they do that?!

There are many things that make hummingbirds amazing, from their tiny size to their sparkling colors. But what keeps us in awe of them is their phenomenal flying abilities. Masateru Maeda, a PhD student at Chiba University in Japan, used a high-speed camera to capture footage of hummingbirds in flight. The scientist wanted to find out more about how hummingbirds fly in order to improve the wings of flying robots.

BBC reported last year, "He trained his high-speed camera on a nectar feeder in order to capture shots of hummingbirds as they hovered. 'We are curious about the precise wing shape,' Mr Maeda told BBC News. 'The feathers [move and] change the wing area as they are flapping.' This movement of the primary flight feathers, the researchers found, changes the shape and size of the wing in such a way as to very precisely control the lift they generate... Mr Maeda said that the birds must have a very acute sense of their wings' shape in order to remain so still in the air."

The ability of hummingbirds to fly unlike any other bird -- including hovering and flying backwards -- will have scientists looking at these "flying jewels" for clues to improved flight for machines for years to come.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Google+, and Facebook.