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Hummingbirds don’t suck. New research overturns a nearly 200-year-old theory on how hummingbirds drink, catching the high-speed drinkers with high-speed cameras.
The old theory said the hummingbird’s forked tongue acted like two straws, drawing up nectar with capillary action. But that theory predicted the birds would like light nectar with low sugar content, while lab tests showed they preferred the sticker stuff. (Video source: University of Connecticut)
The cameras revealed something much trickier. A writer at Geekosystem explains how the tongue actually grabbed the liquid.
“The video showed that when the tongue entered the fluid, the tubes opened up allowing fluid to enter. When it was withdraw, the two sides of the tongue closed tight like a zipper.”
To explain how it worked, the researchers developed a complex model that took into account all the tiny forces acting on the tongue.
Basically, when the tongue is in the liquid, the pressures on it even out, allowing it to open. As it’s drawn back out, various forces at the surface of the nectar snap it back closed. (Video source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)
Their model predicted that the hummingbird didn’t have to do any extra work beyond sticking out it’s tongue. New Scientist explains how they tested their idea.
“...post-mortem samples of tongues showed that they could trap nectar in the same way, suggesting that the hummingbirds do not require any muscular work to gather their food. As such, the hummingbird is the only known animal to trap liquid food without using any energy...”
So the hummingbird’s tongue uses tricks we never thought of. Discover Magazine explains how this new technique could be put to use by humans.
“This discovery doesn’t just rewrite the books on how hummingbirds work, it also suggests new avenues for biomimicry in design. The way the bird sops up fluid could be studied to develop more absorbent materials, or even aid in designing fluid-sipping robots where the thickness of a fluid makes capillary action infeasible.”
If sipping robots are too sci-fi for you, the researchers also suggested the design could lead to more efficient mops. Exciting, huh?
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