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Nature. 2002 Dec 12;420(6916):660-4.

Unconventional lift-generating mechanisms in free-flying butterflies.

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Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.


Flying insects generate forces that are too large to be accounted for by conventional steady-state aerodynamics. To investigate these mechanisms of force generation, we trained red admiral butterflies, Vanessa atalanta, to fly freely to and from artificial flowers in a wind tunnel, and used high-resolution, smoke-wire flow visualizations to obtain qualitative, high-speed digital images of the air flow around their wings. The images show that free-flying butterflies use a variety of unconventional aerodynamic mechanisms to generate force: wake capture, two different types of leading-edge vortex, active and inactive upstrokes, in addition to the use of rotational mechanisms and the Weis-Fogh 'clap-and-fling' mechanism. Free-flying butterflies often used different aerodynamic mechanisms in successive strokes. There seems to be no one 'key' to insect flight, instead insects rely on a wide array of aerodynamic mechanisms to take off, manoeuvre, maintain steady flight, and for landing.

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