How Do Birds Flock? Researchers Do the Math to Reveal Previously Unknown Aerodynamic Phenomenon

June 14, 2024

Part of the answer lies in precise, and previously unknown, aerodynamic interactions, reports a team of mathematicians in a newly published study. Previously, Ristroph and his colleagues uncovered how birds move in groups—but these findings were drawn from experiments mimicking the interactions of two birds. To replicate the columnar formations of birds, in which they line up one directly behind the other, the researchers created mechanized flappers that act like birds’ wings. The wings were 3D-printed from plastic and driven by motors to flap in water, which replicated how air flows around bird wings during flight. This “mock flock” propelled through water and could freely arrange itself within a line or queue, as seen in a video of the experiment:

In looking up at the sky during these early weeks of spring, you may very well see a flock of birds moving in unison as they migrate north. But how do these creatures fly in such a coordinated and seemingly effortless fashion?

Part of the answer lies in precise, and previously unknown, aerodynamic interactions, reports a team of mathematicians in a newly published study. Its breakthrough broadens our understanding of wildlife, including fish, who move in schools, and could have applications in transportation and energy.

“This area of research is important since animals are known to take advantage of the flows, such as of air or water, left by other members of a group to save on the energy needed to move or to reduce drag or resistance,” explains Leif Ristroph, an associate professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Nature Communications. “Our work may also have applications in transportation—like efficient propulsion through air or water—and energy, such as more effectively harvesting power from wind, water currents, or waves.”

The team’s results show that the impact of aerodynamics depends on the size of the flying group—benefiting small groups and disrupting large ones.

“The aerodynamic interactions in small bird flocks help each member to hold a certain special position relative to their leading neighbor, but larger groups are disrupted by an effect that dislodges members from these positions and may cause collisions,” notes Sophie Ramananarivo, an assistant professor at École Polytechnique Paris and one of the paper’s authors.

Previously, Ristroph and his colleagues uncovered how birds move in groups—but these findings were drawn from experiments mimicking the interactions of two birds. The new Nature Communications research expanded the inquiry to account for many flyers. 

To replicate the columnar formations of birds, in which they line up one directly behind the other, the researchers created mechanized flappers that act like birds’ wings. The wings were 3D-printed from plastic and driven by motors to flap in water, which replicated how air flows around bird wings during flight. This “mock flock” propelled through water and could freely arrange itself within a line or queue, as seen in a video of the experiment:

The source of this news is from New York University

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