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J R Soc Interface. 2018 Oct 24;15(147). pii: 20180636. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2018.0636.

Living in a trash can: turbulent convective flows impair Drosophila flight performance.

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Department of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, University of California, Davis, CA, USA
Department of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, University of California, Davis, CA, USA.


Turbulent flows associated with thermal convection are common in areas where the ground is heated by solar radiation, fermentation or other processes. However, it is unknown how these flow instabilities affect the locomotion of small insects, like fruit flies, that inhabit deserts and urban landscapes where surface temperatures can reach extreme values. We quantified flight performance of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) traversing a chamber through still air and turbulent Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells produced by a vertical temperature gradient. A total of 34% of individuals were unable to reach the end of the chamber in convection, although peak flow speeds were modest relative to typical outdoor airflow. Individuals that were successful in convection were faster fliers and had larger wing areas than those that failed. All flies displayed higher pitch angles and lower mean flight speeds in convection. Successful individuals took longer to cross the chamber in convection, due to lower flight speeds and greater path sinuosity. All individuals displayed higher flapping frequencies in convection, and successful individuals also reduced stroke amplitude. Our results suggest that thermal convection poses a significant challenge for small fliers, resulting in increased travel times and energetic costs, or in some cases precluding insects from traversing these environments entirely.


insect flight; thermal convection; turbulence

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