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Small parrots use wing-assisted hops to give them an added push - and it could be how dinosaurs learned to fly

  • Small parrots called parrotlets use a technique called wing-assisted hopping
  • They tend to hop from branch to branch when foraging in trees
  • But sometimes the distance is great enough that they must fly as well 
  • So they use their wings to give them an added push to get around 
  • The wing-assisted hop requires less energy than simply flying
  • It could also have been used by dinosaurs before they developed full flight

Researchers have discovered that small parrots called parrotlets use a special technique called wing-assisted hopping to conserve energy when hopping from branch to branch. 

They tend to hop from branch to branch when foraging, but sometimes the distance is great enough that they must fly as well - so they use their wings to give them an added push.

The wing-assisted hop requires less energy than simply flying, and it could have been used by dinosaurs before they developed full flight. 

Scroll down for video 

Parrotlets can assist and extend their long jumps with small 'proto-wingbeats,' which bird ancestors may have used to develop their foraging flight capabilities. Credit: Diana Chin, Lentink Lab

Parrotlets are small parrots that live from Mexico to southern parts of South America. 

Previous research has shown that parrots use the wing-assisted hops to help them get around, but researchers began wondering if the hopping was random or if it was optimized. 

So to find out, researchers based at Stanford University conducted a study where they created force-sensitive perches and filmed parrotlets as they hopped from branch to branch. 

When they studied the data from the perches and analyzed the videos, the researchers found that when distances between branches were small enough, the birds simply hopped. 

However, when the distance was greater, the birds used their wings to give them an added push. 

The researchers then analyzed the data and compared the amount of energy expended using wing-assisted hops versus taking full flight.

The researchers found that the wing-assisted hop strategy did, indeed, optimize energy usage. 

Parrotlets are small parrots that live from Mexico to southern parts of South America. Previous research has shown that parrots use the wing-assisted hops to help them get around, but researchers began wondering if the hopping was random or if it was optimized

Previous research has shown that parrots use the wing-assisted hops to help them get around, but researchers began wondering if the hopping was random or if it was optimized.

So to find out, researchers based at Stanford University conducted a study where they created force-sensitive perches on an Aerodynamic Force Platform (AFP) and filmed parrotlets as they hopped from branch to branch. 

Schematic of the experimental design. (A) An Aerodynamic Force Platform (AFP) with force sensitive perches. Instrumented perches measure leg forces during takeoff (red) and landing (blue). Five high-speed cameras filmed the birds, and mirrors on the bottom plate provided a ventral view of the the wings. (B) To test how distance and inclination (γ) between perches modify locomotion, five variations were used

The researchers trained four Pacific Parrotlets to fly between two perches in the AFP. 

Each parrotlet was trained using habituation and positive reinforcement, where the bird was rewarded with millet seeds when it flew to the perch that the trainer pointed at using a finger or a target stick.

When the reearchers studied the data from the perches and analyzed the videos, the researchers found that when distances between branches were small enough, the birds simply hopped. 

Using their wings as a partial assist during a hop required less energy than simply taking full flight. 

So the researchers concluded that the birds were very efficient in their hopping and jumping.

Researchers built a model that replicated four particular dinosaurs and their behaviors, and found that for two of them, wing-like boosted flight could have increased their jump length by 20 percent

But then they wondered if wing-assisted hopping might have been used by dinosaurs before developing full flight abilities.

The researchers built a model that replicated four particular dinosaurs and their behaviors, and found that for two of them, wing-like boosted flight could have increased their jump length by 20 percent. 

This advantage could have led to increasingly long jumps as the dinosaurs grew smaller and lighter over time, eventually leading to fully realized flight.

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