As admirers of hummingbirds know, the birds appear to be incredibly intelligent and social creatures. The researchers, however, did not examine how brain power affects agility.
"Remember that some of the most maneuverable flyers are small insects, such as fruit flies," Altshuler said.
The scientists focused their work on hummingbirds because of these avians' feats of flight. As Altshuler told Seeker, "It is often effective to study organisms that are extremely good at doing something to gain novel insight into how that feature works."
The researchers believe their definition of maneuverability as a combination of translations, rotations, and complex turns is a framework that may apply to all mobile animals, and not just to those that accomplish such moves in midair.
The authors suspect that muscle capacity could explain variation in translational maneuvers in other animals, including humans. In terms of just flying animals, the researchers now theorize that wing load explains the variation seen in rotational maneuvers. They hope to test this and other possibilities in the future.
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The findings could lead to improvements in the design of manmade flying machines, from airplanes to drones. They could also help to inform the development of automated ground vehicles, such as self-driving cars. Like birds, these vehicles would have to navigate complex environments with ease.
The determined basic science about agility might even one day improve human health.
"On the biomedical side, there are many disorders related to sensorimotor control of complex movements," Dakin explained. "We have shown that it's possible to quality complex behaviors using feature extraction. This may be a powerful technique in other systems, more broadly."
In a separate article published in the same journal, Peter Wainwright of the University of California at Davis describes how Dakin and her team "provide a blueprint for how to begin to understand the relative importance of different maneuvers to different hummingbird species."
He even envisions the future development of tiny data loggers that could be affixed directly to the birds to study them in the wild without interfering with their flight. Such devices would have to be incredibly small, though.
To provide some perspective, the world's largest hummingbird — Patagona gigas, commonly known as the Giant Hummingbird — weighs just a fraction of an ounce. It is on the hefty side of the hummingbird size spectrum.
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