Defying Gravity

When it comes to the laws of physics, these awesome acrobats don’t play by the rules


Bee flight isn’t impossible – it’s assisted by tiny tornado air flows

The long-upheld myth that bees shouldn’t be able to fly has been debunked. The flexible wings of a bee slice through the air at a high angle of attack, creating swirling vortexes of air at the leading edge of the wing. These improve the flow of air over the surface and prevent the animal from stalling and falling out of the sky. The sharp upward angle is what generates enough lift for the bee to get airborne, a feat that was unexplainable by science until a few years ago.

These fuzzy insects are also supported in the air by extremely
rapid wingbeats. The delicate membranes whizz up and down 230 times every second, with each beat taking only four milliseconds. This unbelievable speed only applies to a hovering bee with no pollen load. Bees can carry their own body weight in sticky sap, resulting in a significant increase in the frequency of wing movements.

 

Hummingbirds are capable of hyper-speed air travel

 

 

Speed is relative and depends greatly on the size of the animal. The tiny Anna’s hummingbird can travel at 385 body lengths in a single second. This means that, once size is accounted for, this bird, which weighs only five grams (0.2 ounces) and grows to a length of 11 centimetres (4.3 inches) is faster than a jet plane.

The male hummingbird travels around 30 metres (98.4 feet) at a speed of 80.5 kilometres (50 miles) per hour. The behaviour that elicits this amazing feat of physics is the bird’s courtship dive, during which it experiences forces ten-times greater than gravity. A human would not remain conscious under that kind of strain.

 

Spiders send up silk to take to the skies

Web-spinning species produce extremely fine film-like threads designed to catch wind like the sails of a dinghy. Spiderlings are most likely to perform this daring feat as a means to disperse themselves far away from their place of birth and their closely related family.

Before embarking on its aerial adventure, the spider will climb to a high elevation and test the air by lifting a leg. It will only take off if conditions are perfect. Up to four metres (13.1 feet) of silk are flung into the sky, and the spider keeps its legs outstretched throughout the journey.

It’s no secret that the weather can change suddenly, and ballooning spiders take an enormous risk. The arachnids have no control over their movements once they have taken flight, and they are completely at the mercy of the wind. Able to forgo food for 25 days, baby floating spiders have been discovered at elevations of five kilometres (3.1 miles) and even in the middle of the ocean.

 

Flying dragons use retractable ribcage wings

This reptile’s ribs have evolved for flight assistance rather than to help with breathing and form the frame of the wings. Being able to glide is vital for finding food, travelling without the risk of meeting ground-based predators and defending territory.

This species parachutes up to ten metres (32.8 feet) to chase away a competing male, steering with its slender tail to ensure an accurate landing. Males protect two to three trees that they consider ‘home’, only allowing fertile females to trespass on their patch.

 

The Japanese flying squid shoots itself into the air using a method quite unlike any other

Found navigating the cooler waters of the North Pacific, this curious cephalopod weighs around 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) and has a mantle length of up to 50 centimetres (19.7 inches). Able to inhabit areas ranging from five to 27 degrees Celsius (41 to 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it only lives for a year, but in that short time it makes a pretty big impression, for this squid can take to the skies.

As the name suggests, Japanese flying squid are known to leave the briny blue behind as they propel themselves through the air, sailing up to 30 metres (98.4 feet) in just three seconds – faster than Usain Bolt! Yet while this spectacular flight is probably vital for predator avoidance (potential attackers include sperm whales and seals), it isn’t without its risks.

An airborne squid is extremely vulnerable, and carnivorous birds such as the imposing grey-headed albatross won’t waste any time in swooping down to collect an easy meal. For this squid it really is a case of fly or die. Sometimes it’s both.

 

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