Hummingbirds are incredible flyers, with the ruby-throated hummingbird beating its wings 80 times every second, an ability that inspired this blog’s name. These tiny birds can fly forwards, hover, and are the only known birds to fly backwards as well. But although zooming backwards is the rarest of the hummingbird’s flying tricks, a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology reveals that it takes no more energy than moving forwards.
Hints that squid can propel themselves through the air have tantalized scientists for some time. When marine biologist Ronald O’Dor kept Northern shortfin squid in his lab, he’d sometimes be greeted with dead squid lying on the floor around their pool. When Julie Stewart tracked Humboldt squid, she found that they were somehow getting places much faster than anyone thought. And when retired geologist Bob Hulse was vacationing on a cruise off the coast of Brazil, he actually caught it on camera: little 2½-inch orange-back squid soaring through the air.
The number one cause of plane crashes used to be controlled flight into terrain (pdf), accidents where pilots unintentionally collide with an obstacle. A pilot unable to see through fog, for example, could fly straight into a mountain, crashing an otherwise perfectly functional plane. Such accidents killed over 9000 people—until aviation engineer Don Bateman’s crash-avoidance technology changed all that.
Bateman invented the original Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) in the 1970s. Using information from the altimeter. airspeed indicator, and other devices already standard in planes, the original GPWS warned pilots with increasing urgency—first “Caution—Terrain,” then “Pull up! Pull up!”—if the plane was due to crash. Bateman, now 79 years old, still works at Honeywell and he’s still perfecting the GPWS. The modern warning system integrates GPS locations of potential obstacles. In a profile of Bateman for the Seattle Times, Bob Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, says, “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”
Flapping while running up a ramp takes far
less energy than flight at the same angle.
What’s the News: How did birds get their wings? And how did they start using them to fly? These questions have bedeviled evolutionary biologists for more than a century, and with flight’s origins long buried, a lot of careful measurements of how modern birds work combined with clever guesswork has resulted in several fiercely differing theories. The two major camps have proto-birds either dropping from trees or running along the ground before finally taking to the air.
A new study lends credence to the idea that flapping wings while running could have been involved by showing that it requires much less energy than flying while still helping birds get over obstacles. This suggests that it could have been an easy way for proto-birds to start going through the motions.
What’s the News: Virgin Galactic’s plans for taking tourists into space have inched closer to fulfillment: earlier this month, the company’s SpaceShipTwo successfully demonstrated the technique, called “feathering,” that will allow the ship to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. In this video, you can watch the ship, designed to behave like a badminton shuttlecock, tip and roll as the pilot flips the craft’s tail to a 65 degree angle, which will brake SpaceShipTwo while it’s still high in the atmosphere. This means the ship will descend slowly enough to keep from igniting as it reenters.
What’s the News: Bats have to use twice as much energy to fly when they’re wet as when they’re dry, a new study in Biology Letters found, which may help explain why many bats refrain from flying in heavy rain.
They may not be as adorable as sugar gliders, but they’re just as accomplished: Five species of Asian snake have also developed the ability to “fly” or glide from tree to tree, flattening out their bodies to travel up to 80 feet.
Researcher Jake Socha and his team studied the glide of Chrysopelea paradisi snake and took videos of the snakes in flight, which Socha presented at an ongoing meeting of the American Physical Society. He found that before a snake takes the leap it curls its body into a J-shape, and then launches itself from the tree branch. In the air, it flattens its body and undulates, as if slithering through the air.
“The whole snake itself is just one long wing,” Socha said. “That wing is constantly reconfiguring, it’s constantly reforming and contorting.” [LiveScience]
Hit the jump for a video of the snake in action.
The enormous wings of pterosaurs testify to the idea that these giant reptiles, which lived at the same time as dinosaurs, would have been masters of flight. But there’s one thing that nags paleontologists: pterosaur takeoff. Just how does a giraffe-sized creature get off the ground?
Birds rely on the strength of their legs to leap into the air or run to gain speed for take-off. Pterosaurs walked on all four limbs, and Habib has developed an anatomical model to explore how they might have launched themselves using their small hind limbs and larger “arms” which formed part of their wings. The animal could have launched itself like a pole vaulter, pushing forward with its hind limbs and using its powerful arms to thrust it high enough into the air to stretch its wings and fly away. [New Scientist]
Here’s a new creature for the record books. In Chile, paleontologists have found the fossilized remains of a huge, toothy bird whose wingspan stretched 17 feet across. That means the bird, Pelagornis chilensis or “huge pseudoteeth,” had one of the longest wingspan ever recorded–a wingspan that was about as long as a giraffe is high.
This newly named species belongs to a group known as pelagornithids, birds that had bony tooth-like projections and long beaks. The well-preserved fossil that researchers turned up belonged to a bird that weighed about 64 pounds and had relatively light, thin-walled bones, according to the description published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. It cruised the skies between 5 and 10 million years ago.
Science: It’s best with stuffed fish and a wind tunnel.
When flying fish leap from the water and glide through the air, they appear as streamlined as any bird or insect. But how does one put that assumption to the test? Easy: Catch flying fish from the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as South Korea calls it), kill them, stuff them, place them in a wind tunnel, and turn on the breeze.
Hyungmin Park and Haecheon Choi did just that. Their study of airflow around the fish, which is out in The Journal of Experimental Biology, concludes that flying fish glide as efficiently as some birds, and perhaps even more so than some flying insects.