Dazzling Jewel-Like Hummingbirds Appear To Defy Physics

An explosion of water droplets, as a hummingbird dries itself off. © Victor Ortega-Jimenez and Robert Dudley/National Geographic

Like tiny flying jewels, hummingbirds appear to hover in mid-air as their wings beat so fast they are all but a blur. As one of the most incredible feats of evolution, many of the speedy little bird's secrets have remained shrouded in mystery, known only to the steamy jungles in which they live. But with high-resolution and high-speed cameras, things have changed.

From how they flap their wings in an incredible figure of eight pattern more akin to that of an insect than a bird, to the explosion of water droplets as they shake their bodies during a rainstorm, the advance of technology is giving an unprecedented look into the stunning creatures lives. And as featured in July’s issue of National Geographic magazine, the understanding we gain can tell us even more about how more about how flight evolved.

As anyone with a nectar feeder in the Americas can attest, as hummingbirds they zip about effortlessly changing direction on any plane, the wondrous birds are truly mesmerizing to watch. Seemingly defying physics, and coated in a shimmering metallic plumage, it is little wonder why the birds have attracted the attention of biologists and collectors alike for centuries.

Watching how smoke flows over the hummingbird's wings as it feeds from a syringe filled with nectar. © Sean Wilcox and Christopher Clark/National Geographic

As the world’s smallest birds – the bee hummingbird weighs just 2 grams – hummingbirds have many impressive claims to fame. They are the only bird that can truly fly backwards, the only bird that can hover on the same spot for longer than 30 seconds, and have the fastest running metabolism of any vertebrate. As Brendan Borrell writes in National Geographic, if a hummingbird was the size of a human, they’d have to drink a can of soda a minute while hovering to get enough energy.

Light boxes can help up biologists understand how the birds perceive the world. © Roslyn Dakin and Doug Altshuler/National Geographic

And that’s not even touching on their astonishing speed. In order to get a better look at this, researchers have been filming the incredible creatures in super high-definition, and then dissecting the footage frame by frame. This is the only way in which biologists can discern exactly what is happening as the birds flap their wings up to 100 times per second, or when some species plummet at around 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) during their high-octane courtship rituals.

One of the most pressing questions is just how these birds achieve such incredible feats using exactly the same building blocks as all other animals. This has led many researchers into testing the birds' abilities, from watching how smoke flows over their wings during flight, to placing them in light boxes to determine how they sense the world around them, and then freezing their movement with impressive technical kit. 

To read more about what this is allowing scientists to uncover, pick up the July issue of National Geographic magazine, or read more here

© JULY 2017 Cover/National Geographic

 

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