, 54:1439
Date: 25 Dec 2012

Hummingbirds generate bilateral vortex loops during hovering: evidence from flow visualization

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Visualization of the vortex wake of a flying animal provides understanding of how wingbeat kinematics are translated into the aerodynamic forces for powering and controlling flight. Two general vortex flow patterns have been proposed for the wake of hovering hummingbirds: (1) The two wings form a single, merged vortex ring during each wing stroke; and (2) the two wings form bilateral vortex loops during each wing stroke. The second pattern was proposed after a study with particle image velocimetry that demonstrated bilateral source flows in a horizontal measurement plane underneath hovering Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna). Proof of this hypothesis requires a clear perspective of bilateral pairs of vortices. Here, we used high-speed image sequences (500 frames per second) of C. anna hover feeding within a white plume to visualize the vortex wake from multiple perspectives. The films revealed two key structural features: (1) Two distinct jets of downwards airflow are present under each wing; and (2) vortex loops around each jet are shed during each upstroke and downstroke. To aid in the interpretation of the flow visualization data, we analyzed high-speed kinematic data (1,000 frames per second) of wing tips and wing roots as C. anna hovered in normal air. These data were used to refine several simplified models of vortex topology. The observed flow patterns can be explained by either a single loop model with an hourglass shape or a bilateral model, with the latter being more likely. When hovering in normal air, hummingbirds used an average stroke amplitude of 153.6° (range 148.9°–164.4°) and a wingbeat frequency of 38.5 Hz (range 38.1–39.1 Hz). When hovering in the white plume, hummingbirds used shallower stroke amplitudes (\( \bar{x} \) = 129.8°, range 116.3°–154.1°) and faster wingbeat frequencies (\( \bar{x} \) = 41.1 Hz, range 38.5–44.7 Hz), although the bilateral jets and associated vortices were observed across the full kinematic range. The plume did not significantly alter the air density or constrain the sustained muscle contractile frequency. Instead, higher wingbeat frequencies likely incurred a higher metabolic cost with the possible benefit of allowing the birds to more rapidly escape from the visually disruptive plume.