For most creatures, doing anything backwards takes a little extra effort and concentration. Most of us move a little slower, and a little clumsier toward our goal when doing so. And though we can fly with the assistance of ever-improving planes and jets, we’ve certainly never accomplished that feat backwards.
A recent study of hummingbirds revealed some stunning findings: flying backwards is apparently just as easy as flying forwards. The tiny aviators, famous for their speed and size, fly backwards regularly, and with apparent ease when retreating from flowers and feeders.
The study, which is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, reveals that of the three flight styles hummingbirds use (forward, backward, and hover), hovering is the least energy efficient. For researchers, who expected to find that backward flight came at a greater cost, these findings are very exciting.
Though the birds become more upright during backward flight, the oxygen consumption, wing stroke rate, and overall energy usage was just as efficient as forward flight.
How were these findings concluded? Researchers used a wind tunnel and feeding apparatus, changing the direction of the syringe and activating airflow to encourage the birds to rotate between flight styles. Oxygen intake was measured using a respiratory mask that monitored consumption during the feeding process.
It’s possible that hummingbirds are not the only creatures to effectively use backward flight. Further research would be warranted to discover what other species might use similar flight methods, and possibly, how these methods could help our own flight become more efficient.