Understanding the variations in wing flapping between different insect species can provide valuable insights for the design of efficient flying robots. However, decoding insect flight is a complex task due to the long history and diversity of winged insects. A recent study combines evolutionary analysis and robotic model wings to gain a better understanding of how different flight modes operate.
Flight in insects is considered one of the most successful evolutionary innovations, as it has been around for hundreds of millions of years and has resulted in a vast number of species. Insects exhibit various flight modes, including synchronous and asynchronous flight. Synchronous flight involves the wings flapping together in a coordinated manner, while asynchronous flight allows each wing to operate independently.
The study focuses on asynchronous flight, which enables ultrafast wingbeats and increased maneuverability. It has been observed in several insect groups, including mosquitos, bees, beetles, and true bugs. Previously, it was assumed that these groups evolved this flight mode independently. However, the researchers demonstrate that these four groups share a common evolutionary origin for asynchronous flight, suggesting that slower flapping insects such as moths and butterflies also had this common ancestor.
The researchers propose that a unique muscle property called delayed stretch activation allows insects to generate ultrafast wingbeats. This property enables the wing muscles to vibrate quickly, exceeding the speed at which the insect’s brain can control them. The brain initiates the movement, and then the muscles take over. It is believed that moths and butterflies lost this ultrafast muscle, resulting in a reversion to slower, synchronous flight.
The study also suggests that a single insect species could possess characteristics of both synchronous and asynchronous flight. The researchers developed robotic models that mimic the evolutionary transitions between flight modes. Their findings contribute to understanding the underlying mechanisms of insect flight and provide valuable insights for the design of future flying robots.
– “Decoding the Modes of Insect Flight Animation” – Simon Sponberg Lab – Georgia Tech
– “Insect flight: one common ancestor, multiple independent lives” – Ars Technica