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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Flying bats take cue from bugs

Pallas' long-tongued bat in flight.

Bats use the same aerodynamic trick as flying insects do to stay aloft, scientists have discovered.

When the bat wing flaps downward, the motion produces a tiny cyclone of air above the wing, called a “leading edge vortex,” that pulls the animal upward. Researchers have known that insects create these vortices while flying, but they’ve wondered whether same thing works for larger, heavier animals like bats.

Florian Muijres of Lund University in Sweden and his colleagues studied small, nectar-feeding bats that were flying in a wind tunnel. They also ran a fog machine inside the wind tunnel and recorded the movement of fog particles around the flapping bat wings.

By watching the swirling fog particles, the researchers were able to figure out that leading edge vortices provide a large portion the lift force that helps the bats to stay in the air. The findings appear in the journal Science.