Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Secrets of moth flight control

Ever tried taking a drink during a bumpy airplane or car ride? Some of it probably ended up on the front of your shirt. Now imagine being a moth trying to drink nectar from a flower on a windy day. If you want that nectar to end up in your gut, you're going to need a way to stay steady while you're in flight.

Researchers have now discovered how moths and probably other four-winged insects are able to fly stably even when air currents are pushing against their tiny bodies.

In the 9 February 2007 issue of the journal Science, Sanjay Sane and colleagues report that moths have tiny bristle-like hairs at the base of their antennae. These hairs sense when the moth's body is starting to roll to either side, and they transmit that information to moths' brains.

These findings help round out scientists' understanding of how insects carry out their aerial maneuvers. (Previous studies have shown that two-winged insects like houseflies use structures called "halteres," which stick out from the spot that a moth's hindwing would, in the same way that the moths use their antennae.)

This information may someday be useful for designing robotic flying insects.