Surpassing Mt. Everest: extreme flight performance of alpine bumble-bees

Michael E. Dillon, Robert Dudley

Abstract

Animal flight at altitude involves substantial aerodynamic and physiological challenges. Hovering at high elevations is particularly demanding from the dual perspectives of lift and power output; nevertheless, some volant insects reside and fly at elevations in excess of 4000 m. Here, we demonstrate that alpine bumble-bees possess substantial aerodynamic reserves, and can sustain hovering flight under hypobaria at effective elevations in excess of 9000 m, i.e. higher than Mt. Everest. Modulation of stroke amplitude and not wingbeat frequency is the primary means of compensation for overcoming the aerodynamic challenge. The presence of such excess capacity in a high-altitude bumble-bee is surprising and suggests intermittent behavioural demands for extreme flight performance supplemental to routine foraging.

  • Received October 28, 2013.
  • Accepted January 7, 2014.
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