Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: Interface focus


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


Figs are keystone resources that sustain chimpanzees when preferred fruits are scarce. Many figs retain a green(ish) colour throughout development, a pattern that causes chimpanzees to evaluate edibility on the basis of achromatic accessory cues. Such behaviour is conspicuous because it entails a succession of discrete sensory assessments, including the deliberate palpation of individual figs, a task that requires advanced visuomotor control. These actions are strongly suggestive of domain-specific information processing and decision-making, and they call attention to a potential selective force on the origin of advanced manual prehension and digital dexterity during primate evolution. To explore this concept, we report on the foraging behaviours of chimpanzees and the spectral, chemical and mechanical properties of figs, with cutting tests revealing ease of fracture in the mouth. By integrating the ability of different sensory cues to predict fructose content in a Bayesian updating framework, we quantified the amount of information gained when a chimpanzee successively observes, palpates and bites the green figs of Ficus sansibarica. We found that the cue eliciting ingestion was not colour or size, but fig mechanics (including toughness estimates from wedge tests), which relays higher-quality information on fructose concentrations than colour vision. This result explains why chimpanzees evaluate green figs by palpation and dental incision, actions that could explain the adaptive origins of advanced manual prehension.

Concepts: Scientific method, Nutrition, Integral, Color, Fruit, Common fig, Ficus, Common Chimpanzee


Owls are an order of birds of prey that are known for the development of a silent flight. We review here the morphological adaptations of owls leading to silent flight and discuss also aerodynamic properties of owl wings. We start with early observations (until 2005), and then turn to recent advances. The large wings of these birds, resulting in low wing loading and a low aspect ratio, contribute to noise reduction by allowing slow flight. The serrations on the leading edge of the wing and the velvet-like surface have an effect on noise reduction and also lead to an improvement of aerodynamic performance. The fringes at the inner feather vanes reduce noise by gliding into the grooves at the lower wing surface that are formed by barb shafts. The fringed trailing edge of the wing has been shown to reduce trailing edge noise. These adaptations to silent flight have been an inspiration for biologists and engineers for the development of devices with reduced noise production. Today several biomimetic applications such as a serrated pantograph or a fringed ventilator are available. Finally, we discuss unresolved questions and possible future directions.

Concepts: Bird, Aerodynamics, Owl, Aspect ratio, Wing, Aircraft, Trailing edge, Leading edge


To maintain the quality of the feathers, birds regularly undergo moult. It is widely accepted that moult affects flight performance, but the specific aerodynamic consequences have received relatively little attention. Here we measured the components of aerodynamic drag from the wake behind a gliding jackdaw (Corvus monedula) at different stages of its natural wing moult. We found that span efficiency was reduced (lift induced drag increased) and the wing profile drag coefficient was increased. Both effects best correlated with the corresponding reduction in spanwise camber. The negative effects are partially mitigated by adjustments of wing posture to minimize gaps in the wing, and by weight loss to reduce wing loading. By studying the aerodynamic consequences of moult, we can refine our understanding of the emergence of various moulting strategies found among birds.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Aerodynamics, Drag, Wing, Flying and gliding animals, Jackdaw, Corvus, Lift


Small aerial robots are limited to short mission times because aerodynamic and energy conversion efficiency diminish with scale. One way to extend mission times is to perch, as biological flyers do. Beyond perching, small robot flyers benefit from manoeuvring on surfaces for a diverse set of tasks, including exploration, inspection and collection of samples. These opportunities have prompted an interest in bimodal aerial and surface locomotion on both engineered and natural surfaces. To accomplish such novel robot behaviours, recent efforts have included advancing our understanding of the aerodynamics of surface approach and take-off, the contact dynamics of perching and attachment and making surface locomotion more efficient and robust. While current aerial robots show promise, flying animals, including insects, bats and birds, far surpass them in versatility, reliability and robustness. The maximal size of both perching animals and robots is limited by scaling laws for both adhesion and claw-based surface attachment. Biomechanists can use the current variety of specialized robots as inspiration for probing unknown aspects of bimodal animal locomotion. Similarly, the pitch-up landing manoeuvres and surface attachment techniques of animals can offer an evolutionary design guide for developing robots that perch on more diverse and complex surfaces.

Concepts: Insect, Bird, Aerodynamics, Bat, Locomotion, Animal locomotion, Flight, Flying and gliding animals


‘Managed grazing’ is gaining attention for its potential to contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing bare ground and promoting perennialization, thereby enhancing soil carbon sequestration (SCS). Understanding why ranchers adopt managed grazing is key to developing the right incentives. In this paper, we explore principles and practices associated with the larger enterprise of ‘regenerative ranching’ (RR), which includes managed grazing but infuses the practice with holistic decision-making. We argue that this broader approach is appealing due to a suite of ecological, economic and social benefits, making climate change mitigation an afterthought, or ‘co-benefit’. RR is challenging, however, because it requires a deep understanding of ecological processes along with a set of skills related to monitoring and moving livestock and feeding the soil microbiome. We review the literature regarding links between RR and SCS, then present results of qualitative research focused on motivators, enablers and constraints associated with RR, drawing on interviews with 52 practitioners in New South Wales, Australia and the western United States. Our analysis is guided by a conceptual model of the social-ecological system associated with RR that identifies determinants of regenerative potential. We discuss implications for rancher engagement and conclude with a consideration of leverage points for global scalability.


Aspect ratio (AR) is one parameter used to predict the flight performance of a bat species based on wing shape. Bats with high AR wings are thought to have superior lift-to-drag ratios and are therefore predicted to be able to fly faster or to sustain longer flights. By contrast, bats with lower AR wings are usually thought to exhibit higher manoeuvrability. However, the half-span ARs of most bat wings fall into a narrow range of about 2.5-4.5. Furthermore, these predictions do not take into account the wide variation in flapping motion observed in bats. To examine the influence of different stroke patterns, we measured lift and drag of highly compliant membrane wings with different bat-relevant ARs. A two degrees of freedom shoulder joint allowed for independent control of flapping amplitude and wing sweep. We tested five models with the same variations of stroke patterns, flapping frequencies and wind speed velocities. Our results suggest that within the relatively small AR range of bat wings, AR has no clear effect on force generation. Instead, the generation of lift by our simple model mostly depends on wingbeat frequency, flapping amplitude and freestream velocity; drag is mostly affected by the flapping amplitude.

Concepts: Ratio, Bat, Aspect ratio, Ratios, Flight, Wing, Flying and gliding animals, Planform


Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) is providing exciting new ways to quantify tree and forest structure, particularly above-ground biomass (AGB). We show how TLS can address some of the key uncertainties and limitations of current approaches to estimating AGB based on empirical allometric scaling equations (ASEs) that underpin all large-scale estimates of AGB. TLS provides extremely detailed non-destructive measurements of tree form independent of tree size and shape. We show examples of three-dimensional (3D) TLS measurements from various tropical and temperate forests and describe how the resulting TLS point clouds can be used to produce quantitative 3D models of branch and trunk size, shape and distribution. These models can drastically improve estimates of AGB, provide new, improved large-scale ASEs, and deliver insights into a range of fundamental tree properties related to structure. Large quantities of detailed measurements of individual 3D tree structure also have the potential to open new and exciting avenues of research in areas where difficulties of measurement have until now prevented statistical approaches to detecting and understanding underlying patterns of scaling, form and function. We discuss these opportunities and some of the challenges that remain to be overcome to enable wider adoption of TLS methods.


Mathematical and statistical methods enable multidisciplinary approaches that catalyse discovery. Together with experimental methods, they identify key hypotheses, define measurable observables and reconcile disparate results. We collect a representative sample of studies in T-cell biology that illustrate the benefits of modelling-experimental collaborations and that have proven valuable or even groundbreaking. We conclude that it is possible to find excellent examples of synergy between mathematical modelling and experiment in immunology, which have brought significant insight that would not be available without these collaborations, but that much remains to be discovered.

Concepts: Scientific method, Statistics, Mathematics, Chaos theory, Science, Experiment, Probability theory, Applied mathematics


The cost-effective mitigation of climate change through nature-based carbon dioxide removal strategies has gained substantial policy attention. Inland and coastal wetlands (specifically boreal, temperate and tropical peatlands; tundra; floodplains; freshwater marshes; saltmarshes; and mangroves) are among the most efficient natural long-term carbon sinks. Yet, they also release methane (CH4) that can offset the carbon they sequester. Here, we conducted a meta-analysis on wetland carbon dynamics to (i) determine their impact on climate using different metrics and time horizons, (ii) investigate the cost-effectiveness of wetland restoration for climate change mitigation, and (iii) discuss their suitability for inclusion in climate policy as negative emission technologies. Depending on metrics, a wetland can simultaneously be a net carbon sink (i.e. boreal and temperate peatlands net ecosystem carbon budget = -28.1 ± 19.13 gC m-2 y-1) but have a net warming effect on climate at the 100 years time-scale (i.e. boreal and temperate peatland sustained global warming potential = 298.2 ± 100.6 gCO2 eq-1 m-2 y-1). This situation creates ambivalence regarding the effect of wetlands on global temperature. Moreover, our review reveals high heterogeneity among the (limited number of) studies that document wetland carbon budgets. We demonstrate that most coastal and inland wetlands have a net cooling effect as of today. This is explained by the limited CH4 emissions that undisturbed coastal wetlands produce, and the long-term carbon sequestration performed by older inland wetlands as opposed to the short lifetime of CH4 in the atmosphere. Analysis of wetland restoration costs relative to the amount of carbon they can sequester revealed that restoration is more cost-effective in coastal wetlands such as mangroves (US$1800 ton C-1) compared with inland wetlands (US$4200-49 200 ton C-1). We advise that for inland wetlands, priority should be given to conservation rather than restoration; while for coastal wetlands, both conservation and restoration may be effective techniques for climate change mitigation.