New 3D Imaging Shows How Hummingbirds Fly

Nov 28, 2014

New modeling from Vanderbilt and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill gives a 3-D breakdown of how a hummingbird's wings work. The method by which the birds move has eluded scientists for some time. But new video imaging shows the airflow the birds create which allows their agility.

In a new paper, researchers point out the bird's wings function more like those of an insect than those of other birds.

"Some of the researchers in my field call hummingbirds honorary insects, because they really are using an insect like wing motion compared to most birds,"  said Ty Hedrick, who runs the Hedrick Lab at UNC.

Using 4 cameras and a highly visible ink, researchers were able to show the birds creating airflow with both their down stroke and their upstroke. UNC's Hedrick credits the build of the birds. He juxtaposes the hummingbird wing to the standard chicken breast.

"That's actually the flight muscle of a chicken, if only a chicken could fly," said Hedrick. "And its recovery muscle is a tiny thing, about 1/10th the mass. With the hummingbird, the division is much closer to the upstroke muscle being 1/3rd, to a little bit more of the mass of the downstroke muscle."

Hedrick says the next step is to develop better 3D projections, to allow a fully rotatable view of how the air operates coming off the wings.

A hummingbird in flight
Credit Ed Yoo / Endeavors Magazine, UNC