Hoverflies: Nature’s shape shifters


Pete Wilton | 14 May 09

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For the first time scientists have produced accurate 3D models of how the wings of hoverflies change shape during flight.

Hoverflies have some of the most flexible and versatile wings of any flying insect – twisting through 45 degrees 300 times every second.

The team from Oxford’s Animal Flight Group have found that the hinged flap at the base of the wing – which flips up at right angles to the rest of the wing during manoeuvres – seems to be intimately involved in the hoverfly's extraordinary feats of aerobatics.

A report of their research is published online in Journal of the Royal Society: Interface.

‘Capturing the shape of an insect’s wings while it is flying freely is extremely challenging,’ Adrian Thomas told us, ‘we had to persuade a hoverfly to fly through a point in space long enough for us to take pictures of it that would enable us to create a detailed and accurate computer model.’

Adrian and colleagues Simon Walker and Graham Taylor exploited the hoverfly’s attraction to beams of light – in the wild usually a shaft of light in a woodland glade; the best place to look for a brightly-coloured mate.

They developed a computer-controlled system that shone beams of light through a transparent chamber into which a hoverfly was released. Lasers were then used to trigger an array of High Speed Digital Video cameras running at 4000 frames per second to capture each flypast.

Hoverfly sequence

‘When we came to build computer models based on this video footage even we were surprised by the amount the wings deformed,’ said Simon Walker, ‘the wing aerofoil is constantly changing shape all the way along its length.’

The model enables them to calculate the physical forces involved in many different types of wing beat. Understanding the physics of hoverfly flight could lead to advances in engineering and aerospace technology, especially in the area of developing so-called ‘smart’ or deformable wing designs for aircraft such as micro air vehicles.

Professor Adrian Thomas, Dr Simon Walker and Dr Graham Taylor are members of the Animal Flight Group, part of Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

The research was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

hoverfly model

Hoverfly video by Simon Walker