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Concept: Flight


Archaeopteryx is an iconic fossil taxon with feathered wings from the Late Jurassic of Germany that occupies a crucial position for understanding the early evolution of avian flight. After over 150 years of study, its mosaic anatomy unifying characters of both non-flying dinosaurs and flying birds has remained challenging to interpret in a locomotory context. Here, we compare new data from three Archaeopteryx specimens obtained through phase-contrast synchrotron microtomography to a representative sample of archosaurs employing a diverse array of locomotory strategies. Our analyses reveal that the architecture of Archaeopteryx’s wing bones consistently exhibits a combination of cross-sectional geometric properties uniquely shared with volant birds, particularly those occasionally utilising short-distance flapping. We therefore interpret that Archaeopteryx actively employed wing flapping to take to the air through a more anterodorsally posteroventrally oriented flight stroke than used by modern birds. This unexpected outcome implies that avian powered flight must have originated before the latest Jurassic.

Concepts: Bird flight, Geometry, Flight, Jurassic, Archaeopteryx, Wing, Dinosaur, Bird


Flying lizards of the genus Draco are renowned for their gliding ability, using an aerofoil formed by winglike patagial membranes and supported by elongated thoracic ribs. It remains unknown, however, how these lizards manoeuvre during flight. Here, I present the results of a study on the aerial behaviour of Dussumier’s Flying Lizard (Draco dussumieri) and show that Draco attaches the forelimbs to the leading edge of the patagium while airborne, forming a hitherto unknown type of composite wing. The attachment of the forelimbs to the patagium suggests that that aerofoil is controlled through movements of the forelimbs. One major advantage for the lizards is that the forelimbs retain their complete range of movement and functionality for climbing and running when not used as a part of the wing. These findings not only shed a new light on the flight of Draco but also have implications for the interpretation of gliding performance in fossil species.

Concepts: Lizard, Aerodynamics, Airfoil, Leading edge slats, Flight, Fixed-wing aircraft, Flying and gliding animals, Wing


The remarkable maneuverability of flying animals results from precise movements of their highly specialized wings. Bats have evolved an impressive capacity to control their flight, in large part due to their ability to modulate wing shape, area, and angle of attack through many independently controlled joints. Bat wings, however, also contain many bones and relatively large muscles, and thus the ratio of bats' wing mass to their body mass is larger than it is for all other extant flyers. Although the inertia in bat wings would typically be associated with decreased aerial maneuverability, we show that bat maneuvers challenge this notion. We use a model-based tracking algorithm to measure the wing and body kinematics of bats performing complex aerial rotations. Using a minimal model of a bat with only six degrees of kinematic freedom, we show that bats can perform body rolls by selectively retracting one wing during the flapping cycle. We also show that this maneuver does not rely on aerodynamic forces, and furthermore that a fruit fly, with nearly massless wings, would not exhibit this effect. Similar results are shown for a pitching maneuver. Finally, we combine high-resolution kinematics of wing and body movements during landing and falling maneuvers with a 52-degree-of-freedom dynamical model of a bat to show that modulation of wing inertia plays the dominant role in reorienting the bat during landing and falling maneuvers, with minimal contribution from aerodynamic forces. Bats can, therefore, use their wings as multifunctional organs, capable of sophisticated aerodynamic and inertial dynamics not previously observed in other flying animals. This may also have implications for the control of aerial robotic vehicles.

Concepts: Force, Mass, Insect, Flying and gliding animals, Bat, Flight, Wing, Classical mechanics


Ornithopters, or flapping-wing aircraft, offer an alternative to helicopters in achieving manoeuvrability at small scales, although stabilizing such aerial vehicles remains a key challenge. Here, we present a hovering machine that achieves self-righting flight using flapping wings alone, without relying on additional aerodynamic surfaces and without feedback control. We design, construct and test-fly a prototype that opens and closes four wings, resembling the motions of swimming jellyfish more so than any insect or bird. Measurements of lift show the benefits of wing flexing and the importance of selecting a wing size appropriate to the motor. Furthermore, we use high-speed video and motion tracking to show that the body orientation is stable during ascending, forward and hovering flight modes. Our experimental measurements are used to inform an aerodynamic model of stability that reveals the importance of centre-of-mass location and the coupling of body translation and rotation. These results show the promise of flapping-flight strategies beyond those that directly mimic the wing motions of flying animals.

Concepts: Bird, Airfoil, Ornithopter, Flying and gliding animals, Flight, Aircraft, Fixed-wing aircraft, Wing


Some of the greatest transformations in vertebrate history involve developmental and evolutionary origins of avian flight. Flight is the most power-demanding mode of locomotion, and volant adult birds have many anatomical features that presumably help meet these demands. However, juvenile birds, like the first winged dinosaurs, lack many hallmarks of advanced flight capacity. Instead of large wings they have small “protowings”, and instead of robust, interlocking forelimb skeletons their limbs are more gracile and their joints less constrained. Such traits are often thought to preclude extinct theropods from powered flight, yet young birds with similarly rudimentary anatomies flap-run up slopes and even briefly fly, thereby challenging longstanding ideas on skeletal and feather function in the theropod-avian lineage. Though skeletons and feathers are the common link between extinct and extant theropods and figure prominently in discussions on flight performance (extant birds) and flight origins (extinct theropods), skeletal inter-workings are hidden from view and their functional relationship with aerodynamically active wings is not known. For the first time, we use X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology to visualize skeletal movement in developing birds, and explore how development of the avian flight apparatus corresponds with ontogenetic trajectories in skeletal kinematics, aerodynamic performance, and the locomotor transition from pre-flight flapping behaviors to full flight capacity. Our findings reveal that developing chukars (Alectoris chukar) with rudimentary flight apparatuses acquire an “avian” flight stroke early in ontogeny, initially by using their wings and legs cooperatively and, as they acquire flight capacity, counteracting ontogenetic increases in aerodynamic output with greater skeletal channelization. In conjunction with previous work, juvenile birds thereby demonstrate that the initial function of developing wings is to enhance leg performance, and that aerodynamically active, flapping wings might better be viewed as adaptations or exaptations for enhancing leg performance.

Concepts: Locomotion, Bird flight, Flight, Chukar Partridge, Aerodynamics, Dinosaur, Wing, Bird


Small-winged drones can face highly varied aerodynamic requirements, such as high manoeuvrability for flight among obstacles and high wind resistance for constant ground speed against strong headwinds that cannot all be optimally addressed by a single aerodynamic profile. Several bird species solve this problem by changing the shape of their wings to adapt to the different aerodynamic requirements. Here, we describe a novel morphing wing design composed of artificial feathers that can rapidly modify its geometry to fulfil different aerodynamic requirements. We show that a fully deployed configuration enhances manoeuvrability while a folded configuration offers low drag at high speeds and is beneficial in strong headwinds. We also show that asymmetric folding of the wings can be used for roll control of the drone. The aerodynamic performance of the morphing wing is characterized in simulations, in wind tunnel measurements and validated in outdoor flights with a small drone.

Concepts: Flight, Lift, Aircraft, Reynolds number, Drag, Aerospace engineering, Wing, Aerodynamics


For aerial robots, maintaining a high vantage point for an extended time is crucial in many applications. However, available on-board power and mechanical fatigue constrain their flight time, especially for smaller, battery-powered aircraft. Perching on elevated structures is a biologically inspired approach to overcome these limitations. Previous perching robots have required specific material properties for the landing sites, such as surface asperities for spines, or ferromagnetism. We describe a switchable electroadhesive that enables controlled perching and detachment on nearly any material while requiring approximately three orders of magnitude less power than required to sustain flight. These electroadhesives are designed, characterized, and used to demonstrate a flying robotic insect able to robustly perch on a wide range of materials, including glass, wood, and a natural leaf.

Concepts: Material, Fundamental physics concepts, Flight, Takeoff, Materials science


Bats account for one-fifth of mammalian species, are the only mammals with powered flight, and are among the few animals that echolocate. The insect-eating Brandt’s bat (Myotis brandtii) is the longest-lived bat species known to date (lifespan exceeds 40 years) and, at 4-8 g adult body weight, is the most extreme mammal with regard to disparity between body mass and longevity. Here we report sequencing and analysis of the Brandt’s bat genome and transcriptome, which suggest adaptations consistent with echolocation and hibernation, as well as altered metabolism, reproduction and visual function. Unique sequence changes in growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 receptors are also observed. The data suggest that an altered growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor 1 axis, which may be common to other long-lived bat species, together with adaptations such as hibernation and low reproductive rate, contribute to the exceptional lifespan of the Brandt’s bat.

Concepts: Flight, Human, Hormone, Mass, Immune system, Organism, Bat, Mammal


This work is a synthesis of our current understanding of the mechanics, aerodynamics and visually mediated control of dragonfly and damselfly flight, with the addition of new experimental and computational data in several key areas. These are: the diversity of dragonfly wing morphologies, the aerodynamics of gliding flight, force generation in flapping flight, aerodynamic efficiency, comparative flight performance and pursuit strategies during predatory and territorial flights. New data are set in context by brief reviews covering anatomy at several scales, insect aerodynamics, neuromechanics and behaviour. We achieve a new perspective by means of a diverse range of techniques, including laser-line mapping of wing topographies, computational fluid dynamics simulations of finely detailed wing geometries, quantitative imaging using particle image velocimetry of on-wing and wake flow patterns, classical aerodynamic theory, photography in the field, infrared motion capture and multi-camera optical tracking of free flight trajectories in laboratory environments. Our comprehensive approach enables a novel synthesis of datasets and subfields that integrates many aspects of flight from the neurobiology of the compound eye, through the aeromechanical interface with the surrounding fluid, to flight performance under cruising and higher-energy behavioural modes.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Moving in a moving medium: new perspectives on flight’.

Concepts: Flying and gliding animals, Odonata, Fluid mechanics, Flight, Computational fluid dynamics, Dragonfly, Aerodynamics, Fluid dynamics


Information about self-motion and obstacles in the environment is encoded by optic flow, the movement of images on the eye. Decades of research have revealed that flying insects control speed, altitude, and trajectory by a simple strategy of maintaining or balancing the translational velocity of images on the eyes, known as pattern velocity. It has been proposed that birds may use a similar algorithm but this hypothesis has not been tested directly. We examined the influence of pattern velocity on avian flight by manipulating the motion of patterns on the walls of a tunnel traversed by Anna’s hummingbirds. Contrary to prediction, we found that lateral course control is not based on regulating nasal-to-temporal pattern velocity. Instead, birds closely monitored feature height in the vertical axis, and steered away from taller features even in the absence of nasal-to-temporal pattern velocity cues. For vertical course control, we observed that birds adjusted their flight altitude in response to upward motion of the horizontal plane, which simulates vertical descent. Collectively, our results suggest that birds avoid collisions using visual cues in the vertical axis. Specifically, we propose that birds monitor the vertical extent of features in the lateral visual field to assess distances to the side, and vertical pattern velocity to avoid collisions with the ground. These distinct strategies may derive from greater need to avoid collisions in birds, compared with small insects.

Concepts: Horizontal plane, Optic nerve, Insect, Insect flight, Flight, Scientific method, Bird flight, Flying and gliding animals