The aerodynamic cost of flight in the short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia perspicillata): comparing theory with measurement

Rhea von Busse, Rye M. Waldman, Sharon M. Swartz, Christian C. Voigt, Kenneth S. Breuer


Aerodynamic theory has long been used to predict the power required for animal flight, but widely used models contain many simplifications. It has been difficult to ascertain how closely biological reality matches model predictions, largely because of the technical challenges of accurately measuring the power expended when an animal flies. We designed a study to measure flight speed-dependent aerodynamic power directly from the kinetic energy contained in the wake of bats flying in a wind tunnel. We compared these measurements with two theoretical predictions that have been used for several decades in diverse fields of vertebrate biology and to metabolic measurements from a previous study using the same individuals. A high-accuracy displaced laser sheet stereo particle image velocimetry experimental design measured the wake velocities in the Trefftz plane behind four bats flying over a range of speeds (3–7 m s−1). We computed the aerodynamic power contained in the wake using a novel interpolation method and compared these results with the power predicted by Pennycuick's and Rayner's models. The measured aerodynamic power falls between the two theoretical predictions, demonstrating that the models effectively predict the appropriate range of flight power, but the models do not accurately predict minimum power or maximum range speeds. Mechanical efficiency—the ratio of aerodynamic power output to metabolic power input—varied from 5.9% to 9.8% for the same individuals, changing with flight speed.

  • Received February 9, 2014.
  • Accepted March 14, 2014.
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