For more than 180 years, researchers had a wrong theory on how the slender hummingbirds fed. They initially believed that their tongues used capillaries to slurp up nectar. But a recent study shows that the tiny birds’ tongues act more like flexible micromini-pumps in the feeding process.
According to the first hypothesis, the long groves on the creatures’ tongues were signs that their tongues used capillary action to extract nectar from flowers. But the recent study proved scientists that they were wrong.
Alejandro Rico-Guevara, senior author of the study and researcher at University of Connecticut, explained that biologists should have known that capillary action is too slow to keep up with the birds’ rapid pace of feeding. Mr. Rico-Guevara’s team learned that the birds’ tongues behave like mini-pumps when extracting nectar, which greatly accelerates the process.
Researchers explained that they were able to observe the real process of feeding with help from slow motion cameras. Study authors explained that the creatures’ tongue bends its top so it generates elastic energy, which is later used to suck in the nectar from the flower to the bird’s bodybeak.
“We show that the tongue works as an elastic micropump,”
one of the scientists noted.
The team also explained that the fluid is eventually directed to those long groves on the birds’ tongue by the force resulted when the tip of the tongue partially collapses and re-expands.
This method, which is impossible to observe with the naked eye, helps the bird take out of a flower up to 10 drops of nectar every 15 milliseconds. The team said that the study took five years mainly because they looked for a way of building transparent flowers so they could see what happens when a hummingbird introduces its beak inside the flowers.
Scientists were able to create their own “flowers” by filling glass tubes with nectar and place slow motion cameras in their proximity. The phony flowers were installed in open areas in the U.S., Brazil, Ecuador, and Columbia because scientists planned to capture on camera as many species of the bird they could.
Overall, they filmed 32 birds from 18 different species. Four years ago, they already found that the capillary theory was incorrect but they couldn’t tell how exactly how the birds fed. The latest study suggests that their tongue acts just like a pump when pulling nectar.
The study was published August 19 in the British journal Proceedings of Royal Society’s part B: Biological Sciences.
Image Source: Hummingbird.ly
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