Lift production in the hovering hummingbird

Douglas R. Warrick, Bret W. Tobalske, Donald R. Powers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


Aerodynamic theory and empirical observations of animals flying at similar Reynolds numbers (Re) predict that airflow over hummingbird wings will be dominated by a stable, attached leading edge vortex (LEV). In insects exhibiting similar kinematics, when the translational movement of the wing ceases (as at the end of the downstroke), the LEV is shed and lift production decreases until the energy of the LEV is re-captured in the subsequent half-cycle translation. We here show that while the hummingbird wing is strongly influenced by similar sharp-leading-edge aerodynamics, leading edge vorticity is inconsistent, varying from 0.7 to 26 per cent (mean 16%) of total lift production, is always generated within 3 mm of the dorsal surface of the wing, showing no retrograde (trailing to leading edge) flow, and does not increase from proximal to distal wing as would be expected with a conical vortex (class III LEV) described for hawkmoths. Further, the bound circulation is not shed as a vortex at the end of translation, but instead remains attached and persists after translation has ceased, augmented by the rotation (pronation, supination) of the wing that occurs between the wing-translation half-cycles. The result is a near-continuous lift production through wing turn-around, previously unknown in vertebrates, able to contribute to weight support as well as stability and control during hovering. Selection for a planform suited to creating this unique flow and nearly-uninterrupted lift production throughout the wingbeat cycle may help explain the relatively narrow hummingbird wing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3747-3752
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1674
StatePublished - Nov 7 2009


  • Aerodynamics
  • Flight
  • Hummingbirds


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