Batty For Bat

3 minutes

(male) If you watch them in the sky, they can fly like nothing else.

(male narrator) Whether they are in your belfry, bats get a bad rap. In fact, up close, they're kinda cute. They're mammals, not birds-- the only mammals on earth that can fly under their own power. We take high-speed video of bats from multiple angles, from four different high-speed cameras. We're interested in bat flight mechanics and how they fly. This is a facility to study the bat's flight behavior.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, biologist Sharon Swartz and engineer Kenny Breuer at Brown University use a wind tunnel to study bats in flight.

(Breuer) This is a Mexican free-tailed bat. We take high-speed analysis of this to figure out where the wing is moving.

(narrator) The team sees the wake bats leave behind, their lift and thrust, and how they maneuver.

(Breuer) A bat can turn 180 degrees at full tilt in three wing beats, and change direction. It's an amazing creature.

(narrator) Unlike birds or insects, bats' wings are shaped like a human hand, and are covered with skin, so they grasp the air, and the skin stretches like a wind sail.

(Breuer) Bats bend all their joints, and move the fingers to change the shape of the wing during flight.

(female) You can see the thumb, then the second and third and fourth and fifth fingers. And the skin is so stretchy. And embedded within this skin are special muscles that allow it to use its wing in a way that would be impossible for any other flying animal.

(narrator) Imagine designing aircraft with this dexterity. That's what scientists say could happen, and we're just skimming the surface. I did not grow up loving bats, but for 20 years now, I have come to see the incredible beauty in their bodies and wings and faces. The more I study them, the more incredible things I learn.

(narrator) With so many bat species, 1,200 in all, studying each one could drive anyone batty, but not here. For Science Nation, I'm Miles O' Brien.


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With support from the National Science Foundation, some Brown University scientists are doing extensive research on bats, studying everything from their agility in flight to the elasticity of their bodies. Researching a bat's evolution, its structure and biomechanics in flight will help scientists better understand evolution and could lead to the development of aerodynamic materials for more lightweight, agile aircraft.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

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