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Biomechanics of the insect flight motor

Project Description

Background: Insects are the most agile and manoeuvrable of all flying animals, beating their wings hundreds of times per second using a myriad of tiny muscles. However, unlike birds and bats, no muscles are found on the wing itself and they instead insert on the wing hinge or surrounding thorax. How insects provide fine control over their wing movement, while balancing the complex aeroelastic forces involved remains largely unknown. Studies of insect flight have typically only looked at overall wing motion and ignored the interaction between forces produced by the muscles and those arising from aeroelastic effects. Furthermore, the insect thorax, which plays a pivotal role in transmitting forces from the muscles to the wings, has received surprisingly little attention. We therefore still only have a very general understanding of how insects power and control their wings.

As with all flying animals, insects use a reciprocal flapping motion due to the physiological and mechanical restraints of biological systems. This is in contrast with man-made flying machines, which typically use a rotary motion. Nevertheless, theoretical and experimental studies are increasingly indicating that small-scale, flying machines with wing span on the order of millimetres have higher efficiency and durability with a flapping, rather than rotary wing motion. This is a scale completely dominated by insects and recent work is starting to provide some insight into how the thoracic mechanics and muscular control can be modelled. However, it is largely unknown if these concepts are generalised across all insects and how their fundamental design has been adapted in different species, with very different body shapes and behaviours.

Aims: The aim of this project is to gain an understanding of how insects generate and control the movements of their wings during flight. The student will use a range of state-of-the-art techniques, based around high-speed imaging, to record the detailed three-dimensional kinematics of the wings and thoracic motions. This includes using a brand-new new multiple camera array specifically designed for recording the 3D motion of insects during free-flight, and macrography, which gives close-up, views of the insect body movements in unprecedented detail. The student will compare wing kinematics across a range of different species as they perform free-flight manoeuvres, which can then be played back using a virtual reality setup on tethered insects while recording the detailed movements of the thorax and wing hinge.

The output from this research will inform us on how natural selection has shaped the insect flight motor for species with different ecologies and behaviours. Further, it will provide inspiration for engineers in the design of bio-inspired flapping micro air vehicles that aim to emulate animal flight.

This project offers and excellent opportunity for the PhD student to learn a range of state-of-the-art techniques covering both aspects of biology and engineering. It would be suitable for candidates

Funding Notes

This PhD will be funded directly by University of Leeds
It is a 3.5 year fully-funded PhD, covering:
• Research Council Stipend
• UK/EU Tuition Fees

Please apply online, selecting PhD in Biological Sciences, and include a CV and transcript.
View Website


Bomphrey, R. J., Nakata, T., Phillips, N. & Walker, S. M. (2017). Smart wing rotation and trailing-edge vortices enable high frequency mosquito flight. Nature. doi; 10.1038/nature21727

Walker, S. M., Schwyn, D. A., Mokso, R., Wicklein, M., Müller, T., Doube, M. Stampanoni, M., Krapp, H. G., & Taylor, G .K. (2014). In Vivo time-resolved microtomography reveals the mechanics of the blowfly flight motor. PLOS Biology. 12, e1001823. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001823

Walker, S. M., Thomas, A. L. R. & Taylor, G. K. (2012). Operation of the alula as an indicator of gear change in hoverflies. J. Roy. Soc. Interface 9(71), 1194-1207. doi:10.1098/rsif.2011.0617

How good is research at University of Leeds in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 60.90

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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