The Science Behind Hummingbird Flight

Posted on August 24, 2012  Comments (5)

Aerodynamics of the hovering hummingbird

Hummingbirds and insects have evolved for sustained hovering flight from vastly different ancestral directions, and their distinct phylogenies underlie the differences in their aerodynamic styles. In all other birds—and, presumably, hummingbird ancestors—the downstroke provides 100% of weight support during slow flight and hovering. Given that many birds possess the mass-specific power (using anaerobic metabolism) to hover for short periods, the selective pressure on hummingbird ancestors was probably for increased efficiency (resulting in stiff wings with greatly simplified
kinematics), and an upstroke muscle (the supracoracoideus) that makes the recovery stroke rapid, while contributing enough to the hovering power requirements to allow the downstroke muscle (the pectoralis) to operate within its aerobic limits.

In other words, this pseudosymmetrical wingbeat cycle is good enough, and although hummingbirds do not exhibit the elegant aerodynamic symmetry of insects, natural selection rewards ‘good enough’ as richly as it does our aesthetic ideals

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5 Responses to “The Science Behind Hummingbird Flight”

  1. Tom
    August 25th, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    That’s really interesting! And I wonder at how many frames per second the video of the hummingbird had to be shot to give such a smooth image. It is so beautiful.

  2. Steve Klaber
    August 26th, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    I wonder how this compares to Hummingbird Moths. The convergence of their evolved patterns is striking, especially when you have both in sight on flowers in front of you. The lower tail on both is reminiscent of a lobster tail.

  3. Kaitlin
    September 28th, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    These hummingbirds are just one of the most lovely and interesting creatures. It is a wonder but it is good that science can explain things like this. Thanks for the post.

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    July 11th, 2013 @ 10:49 am

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  5. Anonymous
    August 26th, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    I grew up around hummingbirds, and there’s simply nothing like watching them buzz around your flower garden or feeders. There’s a dark side though – they fight, and use their pointy beaks like swords to stab at one-another in high speed.

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