May 26, 2010

Modeling the Swallowtail

by Heather Falconer

Modeling has long been used by scientists to replicate and manipulate what they are researching. Physical, conceptual, and computer models have turned out to be important components of scientific research because they allows us to see things. These different modeling forms become incredible useful when studying incredibly large (think solar system) and very small (think atomic) systems. Or, in the case of two researchers at Harvard University, something delicate and fleeting. (To learn more about modeling as a research method, click here.)

Researchers Hiroto Tanaka and Isao Shimoyama have managed to create a model of the swallowtail butterfly’s wing. Their research has not only shown how the undulating flight pattern of the swallowtail allows it to conserve energy, but the physiological importance of veins within the wing. By creating a physical model of the butterfly from a thin polymer film and balsa wood (it weighs 0.4 grams, only slightly heavier than the actual creature), they have been able to compare the flight patterns of the model butterflies (with and without veins) to live ones. After recording the live and artificial creatures on high speed film, Tanaka and Shimoyama were able to compare the data and begin to understand how simple up and down movement can create forward-thrust.  It turns out, as well, that the presence of veins in the wings give them more rigidity, and therefore more lift for the effort expended. Lift was also enhanced by the undulating flight pattern of the butterfly.

The full research report is publicly available in the June issue of the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.

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