High-Speed Hummingbird Photos Reveal Their Wacky Body Parts
Scientists used optical illusions to study the unlikely way these birds work.
A captive Anna’s hummingbird feeds while hovering before an optical illusion in a reenactment of an experiment that illustrates just how heavily hummingbird flight depends on the bird’s visual perceptions. When this spiral rotates to create the illusion that the bird is moving forward, the bird shifts into “reverse gear”—and its beak slips out of the feeder. Photographs by Anand Varma / National Geographic
Space may be the final frontier, but scientists have found plenty of head-scratchers right here on one of Earth's zippiest creatures, the humble hummingbird. The July issue of National Geographic Magazine includes stunning photography by Anand Varma of ornithologist Christopher Clark's experiments studying how the Anna's hummingbird sees, moves, and eats.
Clark recreated studies from UC Berkeley and the University of British Colombia that use smoke, optical illusions, and specially-created tools in conjunction with high-speed cameras to reveal hummingbirds' strange body parts. For example, the reason they can hover is because their unique bone structure allows them to create lift on the upswing, as well as the downswing of their wings.
Hummingbird sight was studied by observing the birds darting around a "visual treadmill." Projections designed to simulate movement had no effect on the almond-sized creature's speed, regardless of whether they were moving forward or backward.
Even stranger is the hummingbird's mouth. A transparent bird feeder provides a unique view of how it slurps up the nectar that powers its turbo-pumping wings. Did you know its beak splits in half to allow the juices to flow in? Check out that and other stunning sights in the images and video below.
Learn more about the science behind hummingbirds in the July Issue of National Geographic Magazine.