Dissect the hoverfly (also known as the Syrphidae family), and where the wing meets the body of this small brown insect, you'll find a tangle of tiny muscular bands and cogs forming one of the most complex hinge mechanisms known to biology. The actual mechanics of this transmission system have been impossible to observe, however, since they move inside the insect's body. Now, using a high-speed camera, researchers have filmed the wingbeats of hoverflies as they flitted around a box and reconstructed their patterns using a computer model. They found that as the fly veered to one side, a small flap at the base of one wing would flip out on that side, while the flap on the other wing remained flat (see video). This indicated that the fly was switching muscles on the side of the flipped wing into a lower "gear," shortening the length of that wing's beats (as shown by the green portions of the graph in the video) to allow the fly to turn, the team reports online today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The system, say the researchers, could help inspire designs for flying machines that maneuver as flawlessly as a fly.
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Correction: The green portions of the graph show that the fly was switching muscles on the flipped-wing side into a lower "gear," not the red portions.