Published: 03 Feb 2015 | Last Updated: 26 Aug 2016 12:23:10

New publication reveals how birds can't 'cheat' in V formation flight by spending all their time at the back.

Research published in Nature last year by the RVC Structure and Motion Lab showed that when birds are flying in a V formation, energy savings can be achieved by using the aerodynamic up-wash produced by the preceding bird. This means that the leading bird in a formation uses the most energy to fly.

New research, published in the journal PNAS, begins to explain why, if it is so much easier to fly at the back of a V, birds change their position rather than trying to stay at the back. For the study, the RVC team developed miniature GPS and motion sensing loggers that could be carried by a flock of juvenile northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) during human-led migration flight. The data showed that pairs of birds take turns, matching the time spent leading and in the wake position and sharing the benefit. This pairing-and-swapping behaviour is likely to prevent 'cheating' by individuals. The research also found evidence that taking turns in leading has a substantial influence on the size and cohesion of the flight formations. 

This research was undertaken in collaboration with the Waldrapp conservation team and the University of Oxford

Reference: Voelkl, B, Portugal SJ, Unsold, M, Usherwood, JR, Wilson, A and Fritz, J (2015) Matching times of leading and following suggest cooperation through direct reciprocity during V-formation flight in ibis. PNAS published ahead of print February 2, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1413589112

The full article can be read in PNAS.

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