Somehow during the history of Earth, life took to the skies. As these winged creatures evolved, they specialised and improved their flying abilities. Today, we have specimens like the incredible hawk moth, a hummingbird-like insect that can precisely control its hovering.
So, how do you study this behaviour? You shoot stuff at the moth, and watch how it responds.
“Without even thinking about it, the moth’s wings do the right thing,” Ty Hedrick, a scientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told Gizmodo.
Flight is about more than just getting into the air—while flapping, animals must remain stable. Hawk moths are the epitome of stability as they hover above flowers to feed on nectar.
The researchers have fired projectiles such as teeny cannonballs and, more recently, smoke rings, at free-flying moths in order to try and explain this incredible behaviour. They film the potshots in super-slow motion, model the movement using fluid dynamics equations, and produce their own simulations based on the hawk moths’ shapes. (See video above!)
The cannonball results have yet to be published—there’s so much going on in these studies that the researchers haven’t been able to put the pieces together yet, Hedrick said. But in the experiments, the moth is somehow able to recover from the knock and continue flying. The moth is able to change the orientation of its wing beats, essentially keeping its wings in the same place while its body moves around.
Perhaps one day, research like this will help scientists develop small aircraft that can navigate turbulent environments, much like a hawk moth on a windy day.