Scientists reveal how hummingbirds always avoid bumping into flowers

Scientists reveal how hummingbirds always avoid bumping into flowers Scientists reveal how hummingbirds always avoid bumping into flowers
  • The birds create a '3D body map' to hover near a flower with surgical precision
  • READ MORE: Hummingbirds can identify at least eight colours that we can't see

The mystery of how hummingbirds hover in the air without bumping into flowers has been solved by scientists.

The birds have an 'acute sense of touch' which enables them to sense changes in the air pressure caused by objects.

The tiny birds create a 3D body map when neurons in the brain 'fire' as gusts of air touch their wings, according to the findings.

While hummingbirds’ flight mechanics have been previously studied in detail, far less is known about how their sense of touch helps them sip nectar from a flower without bumping into it.

The new study directed gentle puffs of air at the birds while measuring their brain activity using electrodes.

They found that hummingbirds create a 3D map of their body when neurons in two specific spots of the forebrain fire – as gusts of air touch feathers on the leading edge of their wings and skin of their legs.

They discovered that the air pressure’s intensity, influenced by factors such as proximity to an object, is picked up by nerve cells at the base of the feathers and in the leg skin and transmitted to the brain, which gauges the body’s orientation relative to an object.

Most of what scientists know about how touch is processed in the brain comes from studies on mammals, but bird brains are very different from mammal brains.

The study was led by experts at University of California, Los Angeles and published in Current Biology.

Study corresponding author Professor Duncan Leitch said: 'In mammals, we know that touch is processed across the outer surface of the forebrain in the cortex.

'But birds have a brain without a layered cortex structure, so it was a wide-open question how touch is represented in their brains.

'We showed exactly where different kinds of touch activate specific neurons in these regions and how touch is organized in their forebrains.'

The work adds to knowledge of how animals perceive and navigate in their worlds and can help identify ways to treat them more humanely, according to the team.

There are more than 350 species of hummingbirds, which live exclusively in the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to the tip of South America.

A 2020 study found they owe their colourful iridescent plumage to 'pancake-like' cells in their feathers that allow light to bounce off them like a soap bubble.

Other research found hummingbirds can identify at least eight colours that are invisible to humans thanks to an extra light-sensitive cone in their eyes.

Hummingbirds owe their colourful iridescent plumage to 'pancake-like' cells in their feathers that allow light to bounce off them like a soap bubble

Hummingbirds owe their famous iridescent plumage to 'pancake-like' cells in their feathers, according to research.

Scientists carried out the largest optical study of its kind to find out why the birds, which are native to the Americas, shine so brightly.

Hummingbird feathers display intense iridescence – they appear to gradually change colour as they are viewed from different angles, like light off a soap bubble.

No other bird seems to have the iridescence of a hummingbird, but scientists weren't sure why.

After examining 35 different species of hummingbirds under microscopes, they discovered it was due to the shape and arrangement of melanosomes – tiny structures within cells that synthesise light-absorbing pigment.

The pancake-like flatness of these melanosomes influences the way light bounces off them, giving a greater array of colours.

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