Ingersoll R, Lentink D (2018) How the hummingbird wingbeat is tuned for efficient hovering. The Journal of Experimental Biology 221(20).
Both hummingbirds and insects flap their wings to hover. Some insects, like fruit flies, improve efficiency by lifting their body weight equally over the upstroke and downstroke, while utilizing elastic recoil during stroke reversal. It is unclear whether hummingbirds converged on a similar elastic storage solution, because of asymmetries in their lift generation and specialized flight muscle apparatus. The muscles are activated a quarter of a stroke earlier than in larger birds, and contract superfast, which cannot be explained by previous stroke-averaged analyses. We measured the aerodynamic force and kinematics of Anna's hummingbirds to resolve wing torque and power within the wingbeat. Comparing these wingbeat-resolved aerodynamic weight support measurements with those of fruit flies, hawk moths and a generalist bird, the parrotlet, we found that hummingbirds have about the same low induced power losses as the two insects, lower than that of the generalist bird in slow hovering flight. Previous analyses emphasized how bird flight muscles have to overcome wing drag midstroke. We found that high wing inertia revises this for hummingbirds – the pectoralis has to coordinate upstroke to downstroke reversal while the supracoracoideus coordinates downstroke to upstroke reversal. Our mechanistic analysis aligns with all previous muscle recordings and shows how early activation helps furnish elastic recoil through stroke reversal to stay within the physiological limits of muscles. Our findings thus support Weis-Fogh's hypothesis that flies and hummingbirds have converged on a mechanically efficient wingbeat to meet the high energetic demands of hovering flight. These insights can help improve the efficiency of flapping robots.