Nectar-drinking species of hummingbirds and bats are both excellent at hovering – one of the toughest aerodynamic feats – but they each have their own ways of doing it. Hummingbirds (bottom) use a nearly horizontal stroke pattern that’s quite symmetric on both the up- and downstroke. To keep generating lift in the upstroke, they twist their wings strongly midway through the stroke. So although hummingbirds get most of their lift from the downstroke, they get quite a bit from the upstroke as well.

Bats, on the other hand, use an asymmetric wingbeat pattern when hovering. Bats flap in a diagonal stroke pattern, using a high angle of attack in the downstroke and an even higher one during the upstroke. They also retract their wings partially during the upstroke. This flapping pattern gives them weak lift during the upstroke, which they compensate for with a stronger downstroke. Compared to non-hovering bat species, nectar-drinking bats do get more lift during the upstroke, but they’re nowhere near as good as the hummingbirds. The bats compensate by having much larger wings compared to their body size. Bigger wings mean more lift.

In the end, the two types of hovering cost roughly the same amount of power per gram of body weight. That’s great news for engineers designing the next generation of flapping robots because it suggests two very different, but equally power-efficient methods for hovering. (Image credit: Lentink Lab/Science News, source; research credit: R. Ingersoll et al.; via Science News; submitted by Kam Yung-Soh

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