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Tiny muscles help bats fine-tune flight, stiffen wing skin
Date:5/23/2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] A new study of bats reveals a capability within their wondrous wings that may help them fine-tune their flight.

Bats employ a network of nearly hair-thin muscles embedded in the membrane of their inherently floppy wing skin to adjust the wings' stiffness and curvature while they fly, Brown University researchers report. Birds and insects have stiff wings, but the new evidence suggests bats have evolved this muscular means of preserving or adjusting wing shape.

"Aerodynamic performance depends upon wing shape," said Brown biology graduate student Jorn Cheney, lead author of the newly published paper in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. "The shape of a membrane wing might initially begin flat but as soon as it starts producing lift it's not going to remain flat because it has to deform in response to that aerodynamic load.

"The shape it adopts could be a terrible one it could make the animal crash or it could be beneficial," Cheney said. "But they are not locked into that shape. Because bats have these muscles in their wings, and also bones that can control the general shape as well, they can adopt any number of profiles."

Membrane muscle measurements

Cheney wasn't sure what to make of the tiny muscles, called plagiopatagiales, heading into the experiments reported in the paper. They have been known for more than a century but their function has never been demonstrated.

When Cheney considered the muscle function, he estimated that each individual muscle would be too weak to reshape the wing. That led him to form two competing hypotheses: either that the muscles would activate together to enhance force or that these oddly shaped, weak muscles might exist solely as sensors of stretch.

Only experiments could settle the question, so Cheney attached electrode sensors to a few muscles on the wings of a few Jamaican fruit bats and filmed them as they fle
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Contact: David Orenstein
david_orenstein@brown.edu
401-863-1862
Brown University
Source:Eurekalert

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