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Up in the air, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's... A SQUID!

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This episode is supported by Himalaya Learning, an audio-first education platform  with courses taught by world class   experts and industry leaders.

Go to Himalaya.comSciShow to sign  up for an 90-day free membership. [♪ INTRO]. Many creatures in the world can fly.

And some have that sleek, aerodynamic  shape that tells you they were destined to soar through the clouds.  Birds look like flyers. But there are also lots of flying critters that  don’t even seem like they could get airborne. Bumblebees, I’m looking at you.

Achieving aerodynamic flight isn’t always  about being torpedo-shaped. Sometimes,   unique body plans make for  some fantastic fliers -- or at least, gliders. And researchers can learn a lot about flight  and aerodynamics from these unusual creatures.

Here are 5 examples of unexpectedly  good fliers that are inspiring   innovative inventions. And spoiler alert: None of them are bees. Flying fish are really good fliers, which  is surprising, since a fish out of water   is not supposed to be a good thing.

Underwater, flying fish are  some of the fastest swimmers, capable of reaching speeds  close to 60 kilometers per hour. They use this speed to propel themselves  out of the ocean and into the air, where they glide along using their unusually  large pectoral and pelvic fins like wings. Gliding is a more efficient way of  flying than flapping fins would be.

It helps them travel long distances and  stay airborne for up to four hundred meters. In 2010, researchers investigated  the aerodynamics of flying fish and determined they’re just as good  at gliding as hawks and other birds. They accomplish this by  positioning their bodies close to, and parallel with, the water’s surface.

That position maximizes their lift-to-drag ratio  . It works much like airplanes  when they come in for a landing. Air rushes off the tips of the fishes’  wings in swirls known as vortices.

These swirls break up as  they hit the water’s surface, which reduces drag and builds pressure  beneath their wings, keeping them aloft. This process is known as the ground effect. In this care, less ground,  more water - same effect.

These fish can also get an extra boost  by dipping their tails into the water and pushing off mid-glide  whenever they get too low. This behavior is known as taxiing, which is  another term we associate with airplanes. Except luckily, airplanes don’t  flap their tails against the runway.

Still, researchers are eager to learn  more about how flying fish glide, so they can apply those strategies  to make better boats… planes… actually, they’re boatplanes. Specifically, they’re craft that use  the ground effect to travel over water, just like flying fish. These boatplanes would cruise  just above the water’s surface, which reduces their drag in order to  maximize their speed and fuel efficiency.

So, understanding the aerodynamics of flying  fish could help engineers improve these vehicles. While we’re on the topic of flying marine  critters, it’s worth mentioning that some squid   are capable of flight! And yes -- researchers  have argued that they’re really flying. 2.

Flying Squid Several squid species can fly over the water   and cover huge distances in  a very short period of time. The neon flying squid, for example,   reaches gliding speeds of eleven  point two meters per second. They’re only in the air for about three seconds, but they can travel up to thirty meters.

Squid launch themselves above the ocean by   shooting a powerful jet of  water out of their siphon. That’s a muscular structure they use to  suck oxygen-rich water into their gills – or to push water out so they can swim and fly. The squid can even control  direction using their siphon, so they can propel themselves in  whichever direction they choose – both beneath and above the waves.

Once airborne, they spread out their  fins and arms, which generates lift   and helps them glide in a graceful arc. For a long time, it was believed these creatures  were launching themselves out of the water like   calamari rockets to escape predators. But research published in 2013 suggests they’re  also using this strategy to save energy.

Squid can travel almost four  times faster in air than in water,   and once they’re gliding,  their energy demands are lower. So, this behavior may be a more efficient way  to travel, especially during long commutes. Researchers have been inspired by  flying squid to create submersible   robots capable of jetting out of  the water in much the same way.

These little robots are very efficient in   their power consumption as they  transition from water to air, something that has long been  a challenge for engineers. The robots could be used to patrol areas that  are otherwise hard to reach, like flood zones. Another creature that’s inspiring scientists   to build more efficient flying  machines is the butterfly.

Which is weird -- because while butterflies are lovely to watch  when they’re fluttering around your garden,   no one would ever call them speed demons. However, researchers at Lund University in  Sweden recently worked out that butterflies   are actually extremely efficient fliers. And  it’s all thanks to their large, flexible wings.

The researchers put the butterflies in a wind  tunnel. Not to blow the poor things away -- just to more easily study how they flew. They found that as the insects lift  their wings, the wings bend and cup, creating an air-filled pocket between them.

At the end of the upward stroke, the  wings collide in a clapping motion, forcing the air pocket backwards and creating a  jet of air that propels the butterfly forward. And when butterflies beat their wings  downward, it keeps them up in the air. Researchers first described wing clapping  in insect flight more than fifty years ago.

But this cupped clapping method is much  more advanced than scientists ever imagined. It helps the butterflies take off  very quickly to escape a predator. And it makes them twenty-eight  percent more efficient at flying   than if their wings were rigid and couldn’t cup.

The researchers suggested engineers could apply   this type of flight and wing  flexibility to small drones. There are already drones that clap  their wings on the upward stroke, but none that incorporate cupping as well. If drones were designed with flexible  wings, they could achieve a cupped clap.

This would improve their  efficiency, duration and range, which are some of the most challenging  hurdles for current drone designs. And now on to a more annoying insect. There’s nothing quite like watching a mosquito  take off from your body full of your blood, knowing you’ll soon be scratching  the welt it left behind.

But how do these bloodsuckers fly  away, undetected by their host, with a full belly that often  outweighs the bug itself? It turns out, it’s all in the wings. If mosquitoes used only their legs to  push off their host, it would require   quite a bit of force to ensure a speedy departure.

Enough force, in fact, that it would send  a signal to their host to swat at it. So to avoid detection, mosquitoes  start out by beating their wings over five hundred times per second. Only after their wings get going do they use  their legs to push away from their unlucky victim.

But they don’t just flap their wings up and down. They beat them in a figure-eight pattern, which generates tiny low-pressure swirls  of air called leading-edge vortices   that come off the fronts of their wings. These vortices generate lift  under the mosquito’s wings, just like they do for flying fish and  many other insect species as well.

But the mosquito adds a twist – literally. As it flaps in a figure-eight motion,  the angle of its wings changes and catches the wake of the previous wing stroke. This generates a whole new series  of low-pressure vortices that   come off the back edge of their wings.

This added lift requires very little energy  and is the key behind its stealthy escape. But that doesn’t totally explain  how they fly fast with full bellies. To discover how they accomplish this  feat, researchers in the Netherlands   compared unfed to fed mosquitoes, to see  if they differ in their takeoff speed.

And they found that blood-filled  mosquitoes compensate for the added weight by increasing  the size of their wing strokes. They also angle their bodies more vertically so  they can be almost as speedy as unfed mosquitoes. Researchers hope to apply  what they’ve learned about   mosquito aerodynamics to make stealth robots.

If these robots could use a similar technique, it could help them land and  take off without detection,   which is key to accomplishing a covert mission. Insects and animals aren’t the only ones  taking to the sky. Some plants do too.

Most of us have experienced the joy of  blowing on a dandelion that’s gone to seed and watching the little  parasols fly every which way. But I don’t think many of us  have stopped to consider the   aerodynamics behind those little seeds’ flight. And it turns out these seeds  are flying using a method that, until recently, researchers  didn’t even think was possible.

Like mosquitoes and flying fish, dandelion  seeds rely on swirls of air, or vortices,   to generate lift and keep them afloat. But scientists always thought these vortices  had to be in contact with something, like the   front edge of a wing. If they just swirled around  unattached, they would be too unstable to persist.

Except this is exactly how  dandelion seeds stay up in the air. The filaments of the seeds – those wispy parts  that radiate out from the central stalk – create the vortices. Or rather, the space between these  filaments creates the vortices.

The air above the filaments  swirls around, unattached, and creates drag that prevents the  seed from falling to the ground. Dandelion seeds always have 90 to 110  filaments. And this turns out to be a very   important component to their successful flight.

When researchers mimicked the  design of a dandelion seed, they found that deviating too much from  that general pattern would become unstable. Interestingly, many insects also have these  filament-like structures on their wings or legs, which suggests they may be using  this same technique as they fly. All these seeds, squid, fish, and insects evolved   incredible strategies that challenge current  ideas of what flight should look like.

So when it comes to developing flight  technologies, some researchers are thinking   outside the box by remembering that the greatest  innovator in the universe is nature itself. Thanks to Himalaya Learning for  supporting this episode of SciShow. They offer audio courses that  are all about personal growth, in 10-minute bite-sized pieces that you can take  in on your commute or before you head to bed.

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