Lens of Time: The Art of Staying Stable

A tiny copper cannonball is no match for this hawkmoth's hovering prowess.

It looks like a hummingbird and flies like a hummingbird, so it must be a hummingbird, right? Not necessarily. Look closer and you may find that the hovering pollinator you’re watching is, in fact, a hawkmoth—a member of a fast-flapping family of moths (Sphingidae) that are among the largest flying insects in the world. Even in turbulent conditions, these extraordinary creatures can hover in midair as they delicately extend a proboscis that can measure up to 35 centimeters (14 inches) long to feed on nectar deep inside flowers. “It’s like trying to drink from a soda can with a six-foot-long straw,” says scientist Tyson Hedrick.

Somehow, despite myriad factors that might throw them off course, hawkmoths are able to remain surprisingly stable when feeding. Moreover, they can recover extremely quickly from disturbances that knock them off balance, often returning to feed almost immediately. To understand how these deft flyers are able to use their wings and bodies to reset themselves after being bumped or jostled, Hedrick and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill use multi-camera high-speed videography to capture 3D video of hawkmoths as they hover. What they’re finding will help scientists imagine a new generation of flapping-wing robotic vehicles—unprecedented and resilient machines that can weather the kind of turbulent environments that are currently off limits to ultra-small drones.

Spine Films

Spine Films is a San Francisco Bay Area production company specializing in international science, nature, environment, and arts media. They search for stories that provide opportunities to find the magical in the mundane, and that celebrate the beautiful intricacy of our Universe. You can find their films and stories on PBS, Discovery Networks, National Geographic and on websites and broadcast stations around the world.

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