Image: Diana Chin/Lentink Lab

These Small Blue Parrotlets Are Better at Jumping Than You

They could help design robots that can hop and fly.

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May 17 2017, 6:00pm

Image: Diana Chin/Lentink Lab

Every person not gifted with legs like a giraffe can agree that standing long jump is literally the worst track and field event. Despite your eighth grade woes, scientists have discovered that it really isn't all that difficult, at least for some creatures, who make it a daily routine when foraging for food. They're small, they're blue, and they can jump distances of two times their height: meet Gary, Aurora, Oreo, and Gaga, the four Pacific parrotlets with better hops than you.

These parrotlets (a kind of miniature parrot from Mexico and Central and South America) live in an aviary at Stanford University in California. Lead author Diana D. Chin and principal investigator David Lentink found in their study, published in Science Advances, that the mini-birds have a nifty way of conserving energy when they're on the prowl for food. They hop, or hop with the assist of a wingbeat, from branch-to-branch in trees to forage.

GIF: Diana Chin/Lentink Lab

Chin, a mechanical engineering PhD student at Stanford, found herself looking up at birds flying around in trees and thinking about how the energetics of short flights haven't really been studied all that much, she said in an interview.

"Short flights are very commonly used," she said. "Short hops and flights take place very rapidly within trees and we don't know as much about them as we do about long flights."

She found that parrotlets can jump up to 20 cm without using their wings, and up to 75 cm with a little wing help. That's pretty impressive for such small creatures. There were four parrots in the study and the force they used to lift off was measured using sensors in the branches.

Chin said that this study can lead to spinoff research on the evolution of foraging arboreal dinosaurs, like Archaeopteryx.

GIF: Diana Chin/Lentink Lab

She and her co-author found that the add-in of a partial wingbeat during short branch-to-branch flights only generated a little bit of weight support, and that was similar to what previous studies on short flights and winged-dinosaurs have shown.

"We modelled what would happen if a theropod combined a long jump with a partial wingbeat," she said. "Early dinos could have gotten more bang for their buck by adding that a partial wing beat."

The findings can also help in the building of robots to navigate cluttered environments.

Read More: Robo-Falcons Will Scare Off Actual Live Birds at the Edmonton Airport

Robots, right now, are either isolated in the air or on the ground, but as technology develops, we could learn from birds who can transition from the ground to the air rapidly, Chin said. "After an earthquake where you have rubble, search and rescue robots are more ideal if the robot could maneuver through the environment by hopping and flying."

Hopefully these fantastically athletic birds didn't leave anyone feeling beat.

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