Glide performance and aerodynamics of non-equilibrium glides in northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus)

J R Soc Interface. 2012 Dec 19;10(80):20120794. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0794. Print 2013 Mar 6.

Abstract

Gliding is an efficient form of travel found in every major group of terrestrial vertebrates. Gliding is often modelled in equilibrium, where aerodynamic forces exactly balance body weight resulting in constant velocity. Although the equilibrium model is relevant for long-distance gliding, such as soaring by birds, it may not be realistic for shorter distances between trees. To understand the aerodynamics of inter-tree gliding, we used direct observation and mathematical modelling. We used videography (60-125 fps) to track and reconstruct the three-dimensional trajectories of northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus) in nature. From their trajectories, we calculated velocities, aerodynamic forces and force coefficients. We determined that flying squirrels do not glide at equilibrium, and instead demonstrate continuously changing velocities, forces and force coefficients, and generate more lift than needed to balance body weight. We compared observed glide performance with mathematical simulations that use constant force coefficients, a characteristic of equilibrium glides. Simulations with varying force coefficients, such as those of live squirrels, demonstrated better whole-glide performance compared with the theoretical equilibrium state. Using results from both the observed glides and the simulation, we describe the mechanics and execution of inter-tree glides, and then discuss how gliding behaviour may relate to the evolution of flapping flight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Sciuridae / physiology*
  • Video Recording