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How Do Flies Fly?


It’s time to give some thought to how a blowfly, or actually any flight-capable creature flies. We circle back to physics here–drag, lift, thrust, and the weight of the creature as key factors. Calculation of the power required–and how to generate that power–is theoretically easier for mechanical flight, but understanding how muscles and their articulations function together in living organisms to overcome gravity, to propel and turn insects, and to sustain them in flight presents more of a challenge. And if you’ve not thought about it before, flies are pretty incredible–they can pull off amazingly nimble, dexterous and swift turns mid-flight that appear to defy their weight, bulk and the relative size of their wings.

Well, ponder no more… In some absolutely stunning research presented in a PLOS Biology paper, Graham Taylor and colleagues have captured in vivo, in living flies, the dynamic internal mechanics of the blowfly wingbeat. They use time-resolved X-ray microtomography to visualize the muscles and hinges in three-dimensions. The method captures cross-sectional images of the fly that can be combined to construct a virtual model of the dynamic movement of each of the muscles and hings through the course of the wingbeat:



The movie is just incredible; this new approach captures the motion of the thorax, the wing power and steering muscles and the hinge. It allows insight into how the fly manages its speedy turn-on-a-dime/sixpence evasive maneuvers that can be simultaneously annoying and impressive when they’re buzzing around.


It’s clear that this has been an exciting project for all involved; when asked about the research, senior author Graham Taylor commented that:

“This has been an awe-inspiring project on so many levels, not least the exquisite complexity of the insects themselves, but seeing the 3D movies render for the first time was one of those breakthrough moments that as a scientist I’ll never forget. It’s a great example of what interdisciplinary collaboration can achieve – facilitated by a longterm development by the beamline scientists at PSI, sparked off by an idea of the insect physiologists at Imperial, and brought to fruition by the members of the Animal Flight Group at Oxford.”


For more information please do take a look at the research article itself and the related primer, both just published in PLOS Biology.

And for more blowfly porn in vivo flight reconstructions here are the other movie files from the research article:



Walker, S., Schwyn, D., Mokso, R., Wicklein, M., Müller, T., Doube, M., Stampanoni, M., Krapp, H., & Taylor, G. (2014). In Vivo Time-Resolved Microtomography Reveals the Mechanics of the Blowfly Flight Motor PLoS Biology, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001823


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