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J Exp Biol. 2016 Mar;219(Pt 5):752-66. doi: 10.1242/jeb.127829.

Surface tension dominates insect flight on fluid interfaces.

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Department of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.
École Polytechnique, Paris, Palaiseau 91128, France.
Department of Bioengineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA


Flight on the 2D air-water interface, with body weight supported by surface tension, is a unique locomotion strategy well adapted for the environmental niche on the surface of water. Although previously described in aquatic insects like stoneflies, the biomechanics of interfacial flight has never been analysed. Here, we report interfacial flight as an adapted behaviour in waterlily beetles (Galerucella nymphaeae) which are also dexterous airborne fliers. We present the first quantitative biomechanical model of interfacial flight in insects, uncovering an intricate interplay of capillary, aerodynamic and neuromuscular forces. We show that waterlily beetles use their tarsal claws to attach themselves to the interface, via a fluid contact line pinned at the claw. We investigate the kinematics of interfacial flight trajectories using high-speed imaging and construct a mathematical model describing the flight dynamics. Our results show that non-linear surface tension forces make interfacial flight energetically expensive compared with airborne flight at the relatively high speeds characteristic of waterlily beetles, and cause chaotic dynamics to arise naturally in these regimes. We identify the crucial roles of capillary-gravity wave drag and oscillatory surface tension forces which dominate interfacial flight, showing that the air-water interface presents a radically modified force landscape for flapping wing flight compared with air.


Biomechanics; Capillary waves; Capillary–gravity wave drag; Chaos; Interfacial flight

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