Mosquitos are notorious little buggers: They are vectors for disease, the agents of itchy bumps, and they don’t provide us with a source of food like the productivity of honeybees.
Perhaps, however, these bloodsuckers can be of benefit after all – as tiny sources of inspiration for the next-generation of aerodynamic innovation. As it turns out, mosquito flight "is generated in a manner unlike any previously described for a flying animal." The study is published in the journal Nature.
Mosquitos’ unusual feats of flight have taken a long time to unravel, partly due to the need for improved camera technology. Now, researchers have recorded and analyzed mosquito flight in greater detail than ever before.
The study used eight powerful infrared high-speed cameras recording at 10,000 frames per second to capture their wing movements. They then replicated this motion in a computer simulation and analyzed their flight aerodynamics.
The slender wings of mosquitos flap at a remarkably high frequency for their size – more than 800 times per second. Essentially, a single flap of the wing is significantly smaller for mosquitos than for other insects of similar size and almost four times as fast.
The eight high-speed cameras recording at 10,000 frames per second. Bomphrey/Nakata/Phillips/Walker
"The usual flapping pattern of short, fast sweeps means that mosquitoes cannot rely on conventional aerodynamic mechanisms that most insects and helicopters use," said lead author Dr Richard Bomphrey of the Royal Veterinary College in a statement. "Instead, we predicted that they must make use of clever tricks as the wings reverse their direction at the end of each half-stroke."
These flight tricks include an efficient motion that recycles the energy, or wake, of the previous wingbeat. Mosquitos also don’t singularly rely on leading-edge vortices similar to other insects, but instead carve a tight figure eight formation in the air. During flight, they trap the wake of the previous motion to create trailing-edge vortices. This is a particularly economic way of generating lift with their wingspan.
In addition, they switch the axis of their wing rotation in such a way as to efficiently direct air pressure. All this adds up to a wing stroke amplitude that is around half that of other insects measured to date.
"There is still much to learn from flying insects," added co-author Dr Simon Walker of the Oxford Animal Flight Group, "the more we know about them, the better our chance of understanding their flight behavior, how they carry disease and eventually how to stop them from doing so."