How a Maple Seed Twirls and Whirls and Stays Aloft

By Eliza Strickland | June 12, 2009 8:46 am

maple seedThe seeds that twirl down from maple trees every spring can fly as far as a mile, with each wing-shaped seed spinning like a whirligig on the air. Studies have shown that the seed’s whirling, called auto-rotation, gives it extra lift, but why this occurs has never been explained. It took an aerospace engineer, David Lentink of the Wagenigen University in the Netherlands, to figure it out [The New York Times].

Lentink and his colleagues first studied how a model of a maple seed moved in a tank of oil, and then filmed a real seed falling through a smoke-filled wind tunnel, which allowed them to observe the air currents around the seed. The images the team obtained showed that a swirling maple seed generates a tornado-like vortex that sits atop the front leading edge as the “helicopter” spins slowly to the ground. This leading edge vortex lowers the air pressure over the upper surface of the maple seed, effectively sucking the wing upward to oppose gravity [Live Science].

In the study, which will be published in Science, researchers say that this mechanism of staying aloft isn’t unique to the maple seeds. Such vortexes are also found in hovering insects and bats, and may represent “a convergent aerodynamic solution in the evolution of flight performance in both animals and plants” [], the researchers write. The flapping wings of hovering hummingbirds also produce vortexes.

While the researchers are delighted to add to our understanding of the natural world, they say the work doesn’t have immediate applications. The vortex technique probably wouldn’t work at scales as large as an airplane, but the research could help in designing mini-parachutes that zoom in with a camera to survey the surface of a planet, Lentink says [Science News].

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: Seeds, From the Largest to the Oldest to the Safest
DISCOVER: Beautiful Images of Strange Fruits (photo gallery)

Image: David Lentink

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • YouRang

    I think the picture is confusing; it kind of looks like the way the vortex that holds the seed aloft might look but isn’t–it’s a time lapse of the seed itself, I think.

  • Arlene- PA

    vortexes = vortices, no??

  • Nick

    Re: Arlene: Both are correct for English usage. Use vortices when you want to sound like your using fifteen dolla words.

    Jet planes work by affecting air pressure, creating lift that buoys the plane. It does create vortices at the tips of the wings, so there may be hope for this experiment to yield results yet – or at least NASA claims it creates them.

    I do know the shaping of jet engine outlets with chevron patterning drastically reduces the air drag noise common with jet engines, maybe this has some vortex shaping in it as well.

  • boxelder

    Most maple samaras have two wings arranged in a V, with an angle of about 120 degrees between the wings. (And the leading ends of the wings point in opposite directions: i.e., both are ‘out’). If you’ve ever played with samaras, you know that they don’t spin very well; they glide. The illustration clearly shows only 1 wing (like a boxelder/manitoba maple). Show me how the swirl works on a real maple!


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