Flexible Wings Aid Butterfly Flight

A silver-washed fritillary butterfly.

Butterflies are some of the oddest flyers of the insect world, given the large size of their wings relative to their bodies. That could be a recipe for inefficient flight, but a new study shows that butterflies’ large flexible wings actually help them take off quickly.

When lifting their wings, butterflies use an unusual clapping motion, with the leading edges of their wings coming together before the rest of the wings. This motion helps cup and direct air, creating most of the butterfly’s thrust, according to the researchers. The wings’ flexibility is key to this. Using artificial wings — both stiff and flexible — researchers found that the flexible wings generated 22% more useful impulse and were 28% more efficient. For a tiny flyer with frequent take-offs, that’s an enormous savings! (Image, video, and research credit: L. Johansson and P. Henningsson; via BBC; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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