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Hummingbird flight an evolutionary marvel

CORVALLIS, Ore. Humans with an appreciation of beauty may have marveled for millennia at the artistry of a darting hummingbird, but scientists announced today that for the first time they can more fully explain how a hummingbird can hover.

Using a powerful technology that was originally developed for engineering, researchers were able to exactly document the movement of air around a hummingbird's wings and show how its flight is accomplished with the body structure of a bird but some of the aerodynamic tricks of an insect.

This gives it an ability to hover almost indefinitely - an evolutionary advantage in feeding on plant nectar that no other bird has - and an elegance that has charmed people for generations.

The findings were published today in the journal Nature, by scientists from Oregon State University, the University of Portland and George Fox University.

"For decades most researchers thought that hummingbirds had the same flight mechanisms as insects, some of which can hover and dart around in the same way," said Douglas Warrick, an assistant professor of zoology at OSU. "But a hummingbird is a bird, with the physical structure of a bird and all of the related capabilities and limitations. It is not an insect, and it does not fly exactly like an insect."

Flying insects have wings that are almost flat. They gain lift with two mirror-image halfstrokes as the wing moves back and forth in a figure eight pattern, producing nearly equal lift during the downstroke and upstroke. Hummingbird wings move in a similar pattern, and like insects, a hummingbird can invert its wings turn them upside down during the upstroke a fair amount more than an average bird. Thus, is has long been assumed that hummingbirds, like insects, were developing equal amounts of lift during both halves of the wing cycle.

But Warrick and his colleagues, Brett Tobalske at the University of Portland and Don Powers at George Fox University, suspected the similar
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Contact: Douglas Warrick
warrickd@science.oregonstate.edu
541-737-3703
Oregon State University
22-Jun-2005


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