February 28, 2008—Bats have more flying styles in their bag of tricks than previously thought, according to a new study that shows the mammals perform the same aerial maneuvers as insects to stay aloft.
These aerodynamic tricks come into play when a bat flaps downward, producing a tiny cyclone of air called a "leading edge vortex," according to research led by Florian Muijres of Lund University in Sweden.
This phenomenon, crucial to insect flight, had only been studied indirectly in flying vertebrates, Muijres and colleagues write in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.
For the new experiment, the researchers put small, nectar-feeding Pallas' long-tongued bats in wind tunnels, so that the animals flew freely in front of a feeder (pictured above).
Various measurements taken by the scientists, including the movement of fog particles in the bats' wakes, showed that vortices contributed to as much as 40 percent of the lift force that kept the mammals in the air, especially during slow flight or hovering.
This leading-edge vortex has a "strength that is important to the overall aerodynamics" of bat flight, the authors write.
They conclude that larger, slower-flying animals likely use the vortex technique to keep up with their insect prey.
Next, the scientists plan to study larger birds and bats to see if they also enjoy the same flight advantage, study author Anders Hedenström of Lund University, told National Geographic News.
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