Tag Archives: birds

Staying airborne: How bird wings are built for aerodynamic and efficient flight

Flight is a concept that has, until relatively recently in history, eluded humanity. However, birds have been successfully flying for approximately 130 million years, proving themselves to be a physical marvel of the natural world. And while our means of flight have historically been crude in design and performance, nature provides an elegant, efficient solution to get creatures off of the ground. Rüppell’s griffon vultures have been recorded flying as high as 37,000 ft, while some species of shorebirds have been recorded flying as far as from Alaska to New Zealand over eight days without stopping. But how exactly do birds seem to effortlessly overcome gravity so effectively? And perhaps more importantly, how might we apply these answers to improve manmade aircraft?

Morphology

Obviously, the exact aerodynamics and physical characteristics of birds will vary from species to species, but there are still underlying similarities that enable birds to fly. A bird’s wing consists of a shoulder, elbow, and wrist joint which establish the wing’s basic shape and allow a range of motion. Covering the wing are structures called primary, secondary, and coverts, which are all groups of feathers that provide lift and stabilize flight. Feathers consist of flexible fibers attached to a center shaft, called the rachis. Overtime, the rachis will become damaged from fatigue and large instances of stress. As a result, birds will molt and regrow their feathers on a regular basis. 

A diagram of the structure of a bird wing
Picture by marcosbseguren on Wikimedia Commons

Generally, a bird’s body will be adapted to either gliding flight, in which the wings flap very infrequently, or active flight, in which the wings flap nearly constantly. For gliding birds, such as the ocean dwelling albatross, the wings will extend far away from the body, and prioritize both wing and feather surface area over flexibility. Additionally, these wings will have a thick leading edge, and will be much straighter. However for fast, agile birds, such as falcons, the opposite is true. Consequently, agility is sacrificed for energy efficiency. In both cases, the rachis will change shape and rigidity, becoming larger and stiffer for gliding flight and smaller and more flexible for agile flight. 

Aerodynamics

One of the most unique aerodynamic characteristics of birds is that nearly all of their lift and thrust is exclusively generated by their wings, as opposed to aircraft that implement both wings and engines. This provides, among other things, near instantaneous control of both flight direction and speed. In other words, this gives birds an advantage when hunting, escaping from predators, and maneuvering through a landscape. 

To aid in the generation of thrust and lift during flight, birds will change their wing shape through a process called active morphing. During flight, the wing will be bent inwards and twisted up during the upstroke, and extended and straightened during the downstroke. As a result, this minimizes drag while maximizing thrust and, consequently, energy efficiency. This can aid in anything from traveling farther distances to hunting prey.

An osprey folding its wings in while catching a fish
Photo by Paul VanDerWerf on Wikimedia Commons

Applications

Initially, these principles may seem difficult to realistically utilize in aircraft. After all, we are limited by the materials available and the size that aircraft must reach. However, small steps could be taken to improve the energy efficiency and responsiveness of aircraft. For example, wing shape, material flexibility, surface finish, and moving joints could all be explored. In fact, research at MIT is currently being conducted on flexible wings made of scale-like modular structures. If experiments like this are successful, it could show that aircraft designs inspired by nature may be the future of the world of aeronautics.

Which is more stable, washing machines or birds? The answer might surprise you

What do birds and washing machines have in common? Shockingly, it’s not the ability to wash clothes. Rather, most birds and washing machines are great examples of vibration isolation systems.

Now that’s cool and all – but what is a vibration isolation system?

Better known as a mass-spring-damper system, vibration isolators are generally a mechanical or industrial mechanism that can reduce the amount of vibrational energy produced by a system. Vibration isolators are incredibly important; studies show “undesirable vibrations” can shorten a machine’s service life and even permanently damage the machine and those using it. Considering this, engineers are constantly improving upon current vibration control systems, and are now looking to birds for inspiration.

But why birds? Well, to understand this, let’s consider a bird as a simple mass-spring-damper system.

Avian vibration isolation system represented as mass-spring-damper-system
Simple approximation of avian vibration isolation system as mass-spring-damper system. Taken from the 2015 study: ‘The role of passive avian head stabilization in flapping flight.”

First, visualize vibrations as an oscillating force stemming from the bird’s body moving back-and-forth. Vibrational forces can be generated by the flapping of wings, unexpected gusts, and/or movement of legs. Now, if we continue up from the body to the neck, we can see where avian skeletal and muscular structure really begins to “show off its feathers.”

Characterized as a multi-layered structure, the avian neck contains many sections of “hollow” bones, connected by surrounding muscles. The structural units (muscles and bones) of the avian neck have properties of both springs and dampers, optimizing them for vibration isolation.

Simplified representation of multi-layered neck as spring-damper structure

For starters, we see the muscles largely act as springs. Springs have the unique ability to move a body with its vibrations. This behavior is present in the muscles connected to the bone segments, in that they are capable of instantaneously compressing, elongating and twisting in response to rapid changes in the body’s movement. This elastic response prevents not only the head, but the whole bird, from shaking when bombarded when vibrations from any form of movement.

Simplified visualization of multi-layered spring-damper structure. The transparent grey portion represents the hollow bone, which is connected by the black lines, or strong spring-like muscles. The empty space between each unit would consist of the softer, damper-like muscle. Taken from the 2021 study: “A novel dynamics stabilization and vibration isolation structure inspired by the role of avian neck.”

Alternatively, the muscles, primarily those not connected to bone, can act as dampers. Effective dampers are similarly identified by the ability to move with vibrations; however, they can dissipate some of the vibrational energy as heat, or store energy until relaxed. The interior muscles are capable of slowly deforming (changing shape) if exposed to steady vibrations, allowing for dissipation of excessive vibrational energy.

But hey, what about those bones?

The avian neck has nearly three times the number of bone sections than most mammals, on top of muscles entirely surrounding the neck. This drastically increases the bird’s flexibility, helping it maneuver through sharp positional changes, thereby further limiting the effect of vibrational forces.

Finally, what makes the avian vibration isolator truly superior is its passive activation. As engineers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University point out, manmade passive vibration isolators fall short because they require sensors and input energy to adjust for “shocks and random vibrations.” As previously explained, the multi-layered neck is well equipped to handle random oscillations, yet, more importantly, the bird’s neck muscles can passively change position to brace for incoming vibrations.

A recent study from Stanford University proved this concept by recording a whooper swan’s reaction to different strength gusts. They found that swan’s neck adjusted to protect the head, and that even when the flapping doubled, the movement of the head reduced by a quarter. Finally, it is important to note that passive activation is not limited to the sky; researchers have found that mainly terrestrial birds like chickens and pigeons have a similar neck structure and system for maintaining stability and clear vision.

Overall, continuing to study the avian vibration isolation system could prove very beneficial for many different applications. For a more in-depth look at the current work out, check-out the studies referenced throughout the article. Otherwise, enjoy watching this chicken work its body control magic!

Mercedes-Benz “Chicken” Magic Body Control Advertisement, highlighting the chicken’s amazing head stabilization ability.

How much wood can a woodpecker peck? The Science Behind a Woodpecker’s Anatomy

Woodpecker anatomy: showing the location of the tongue
Diagram showing the tongue of a woodpecker, obtained from “BirdWatchingDaily.com”

Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker is capable of banging its head against a tree so furiously without seriously injuring itself? The impact of a woodpecker’s beak with a tree can exceed speeds of up to 6 meters per second and occur over 12,000 times a day.These kinds of numbers are what allow woodpeckers to smash through trees to get to those tasty bugs that live inside.

How is this possible you may ask? Scientists have studied the anatomy of a woodpecker and have come across an extraordinary discovery: the tongue of a woodpecker wraps completely around its neck before exiting the mouth, constricting the blood flow to and from the brain. This increases the amount of blood volume in the skull, making it, and its precious cargo, filled to the brim with fluid. This creates an effect known as “slosh mitigation”, where an object that is completely enclosed by an incompressible fluid becomes protected from an outside force due to the constant stabilization of pressure within the enclosed system. Thus, the harsh vibrations translated throughout the skull of the woodpecker are mitigated by a cushioning effect induced by the increased volume of blood in the brain. Ever notice how a snow globe always has a little pocket of air sitting on top of the water? Without it, there would be no pressure changes, and the flakes of snow would be restrained from ever creating that magical snowy blizzard we all love.

This incredible discovery is not just a fascinating fact you can pull out to impress your friends. In fact, companies have begun applying the science behind a woodpecker’s anatomy to the sports arena. A company by the name of Q30 Innovations has been on a mission to curb the estimated 3.8 million concussion occurrences every year. Their latest product, the Q Collar, features a tightly fitted neck brace that applies a mild compression to the jugular in the neck, thus creating the “slosh mitigation” effect on the brain. The Q-Collar has already been put to the test, showing positive results on football players and hockey players. Their latest test showed the effects of wearing the Q-Collar for a high school girls soccer team, whose total head impacts were collected via an accelerometer throughout the entire season. Half the team was selected to wear the Q-Collar, and at the end of the season, the accelerometers of both groups reported similar levels of head impact, both in quantity and severity. However, it was shown the group wearing the Q-Collar required less brain activity to complete a concussion protocol than those of the control group. This shows that despite any of the girls having a reported concussion, the high impact loads exhibited on the brain during the season were enough to prohibit the brain from performing at its optimal level.

Want to learn more about breakthrough technologies covering the challenges of concussions? Learn more at Q30 Innovations.

 

References:

  1. “Do Woodpeckers Get Concussions?”http://explorecuriocity.org/Explore/ArticleId/6734/do-woodpeckers-get-concussions.aspx
  2. “Response of Woodpecker’s Head during Pecking Process Simulated by Material Point Method” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4406624/
  3. “What is a Concussion?” http://www.protectthebrain.org/Brain-Injury-Research/What-is-a-Concussion-.aspx
  4. “Q-Collar tests produce positive results in protecting girl soccer players from concussions” https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/health/q-collar-tests-produce-positive-results-in-protecting-girl-soccer-players-from-concussions

How do Hummingbirds and Nectar Bats Hover?

What do hummingbirds and nectar bats have in common?

Bat feeding. Photo from Pixabay.

Hummingbird feeding. Photograph from Shutterfly.

Nectar!

Due to their dietary needs, evolution played an important role in the flight mechanisms of these species. In order for them to collect nectar, they developed the ability to hover over flowers.

Understanding hovering capabilities of these animals has been unclear for a long time. Hence, researchers, Ingersoll, Haizmann, and Lentink, set on discovering how exactly these species do it in this research paper.

 

 

The researchers headed to the tropics, Costa Rica, for 10 weeks to conduct the study. This destination was chosen, because it is home to 10% and 15% of the worlds’ respective bat and hummingbird populations. In the neotropical environment, they studied 17 hummingbird species and 3 bat species. They chose popular species that were representative of the environment.

The researchers captured living birds and bats to measure forces exerted from their wings. They also digitized their wing kinematics to see similarities and differences between them. They placed the species into a 0.125 cubic meter box as seen in figure 1. On the walls of the box, they installed force sensors and plates to measure the forces exerted by their wings. They recorded the species with a high resolution camera. After they collected the data, they released the animals back into the wild.

Figure 1: The experimental setup. Modified from Ingersoll, Haizmann, and Lentink, Science Advances 2018. 

After running a convergence study, they found that hummingbirds and nectar bats have different wingbeats. Hummingbirds create a quarter of vertical aerodynamic forcing during the upstroke of their wingbeat—meaning that when their wings go up, they create a force that is 1/4 of their body weight. Hummingbirds’ wingbeats are more horizontal than generalist birds and bats, which helps generate this lift. On the other hand, nectar bats generate elevated weight supporting during the downstroke, by inverting their wings more than hummingbirds with a greater angle of attack. Theoretically, this takes up more power than hummingbirds’ wingstroke. However, due to the fact that bats have a large wingspan, energy costs are made up and power used becomes similar to the hummingbird per unit body mass.

The researchers also decided to look into interspecies differences to see if different hover poses, due to different diets, produced different upstroke support. In both hummingbirds and bats, there was no remarkable difference. 

Therefore, the study concluded that hummingbirds are more efficient, due to symmetry in beating back and forth, which creates a lift force upward to reduce drag and power required. However, bats are able to compensate for the lack of vertical force during upstroke, with large wingspan and a higher angle of attack to maximize aerodynamic force to combat gravity, by combining lift and drag forces on the downstroke. 

These findings will largely help engineers understand design tradeoffs, like the ones discussed, with aerodynamic power to help aerial robots, like the Nano Hummingbird and Bat Bot seen in these videos:

For more information check out this!

 

Find out more about Bat Bot here.

How do Flamingos Stand on One Leg?

How long can you stand up before you get tired?

This is an important question for animals that sleep standing up, like horses and flamingos.  Our joints are stabilized by muscles, but the constant activation of muscles needed to maintain balance requires energy and induces fatigue.

flamingo standing on one leg while grooming
Photo by Lieselot. Dalle on Unsplash

Flamingos are especially perplexing because they often sleep on only one leg. This requires that single leg to support the entire weight of the animal and maintain balance. Researchers think that this is beneficial because it allows them to switch legs when one gets tired. But does that benefit outweigh the cost of maintaining balance on a single leg?

Researchers Young-Hui Chang at Georgia Tech and Lena Ting at Emory investigated this question in a recent paper by examining the muscle forces required to support body weight and maintain balance in flamingos standing on one leg.

Using dead flamingos (that can’t generate active muscle forces), the researchers clamped one leg and tilted the cadavers forward and backward (video).   They found that the leg remained straight even after rotating it more than 45 degrees in each direction. This only happens when the bird’s foot is right underneath its body, not when it’s off center (like it is when standing on two legs).

This is remarkable, because flamingos’ femurs (the large bone in our thighs) are horizontal. Essentially, a standing flamingo is in a position similar to a human doing a squat! The researchers think that the bird’s bodyweight generates passive joint moments around the hip and knee, keeping the joints into a fixed position in order to support the weight of their body. A similar arrangement, called a stay apparatus, is found in horses for the same purpose, and bat fingers contain a similar lock that helps them stay hanging for long periods of time.

In a second experiment involving live baby flamingos, the researchers used a force plate to measure the center of pressure in their feet as they stood on one leg. (To feel this center of pressure, stand on one leg and feel different parts of your foot press into the ground as you try to keep your balance.)

baby flamingo standing on one leg, with diagrams showing force plate readings
modified from Chang & Ting, Biology Letters 2017

While they were awake and active, the center of pressure moved a lot, but when they rested or fell asleep, they were remarkably stable. This led the researchers to suggest that the birds may have a way to balance without active muscle forces as well, although they do need to work actively to keep their balance when being active, like while grooming.

Flamingos, with their big bodies and long, slender legs, resemble an inverted pendulum. Inverted pendulums are a classic example of an unstable system, which will fall over without active control. But flamingos manage to stay upright for long stretches of time – and if we can figure out how, we might be able to bring stability to other unstable systems! This could be helpful as we try to make robots who can walk on uneven surfaces – and they need all the help they can get with that: