Flying insects can tolerate substantial wing wear before their ability to fly is entirely compromised. In order to keep flying with damaged wings, the entire flight apparatus needs to adjust its action to compensate for the reduced aerodynamic force and to balance the asymmetries in area and shape of the damaged wings. While several studies have shown that damaged wings change their flapping kinematics in response to partial loss of wing area, it is unclear how, in insects with four separate wings, the remaining three wings compensate for the loss of a fourth wing. We used high-speed video of flying blue-tailed damselflies (Ischnura elegans) to identify the wingbeat kinematics of the two wing pairs and compared it to the flapping kinematics after one of the hindwings was artificially removed. The insects remained capable of flying and precise maneuvering using only three wings. To compensate for the reduction in lift, they increased flapping frequency by 18 ± 15.4% on average. To achieve steady straight flight, the remaining intact hindwing reduced its flapping amplitude while the forewings changed their stroke plane angle so that the forewing of the manipulated side flapped at a shallower stroke plane angle. In addition, the angular position of the stroke reversal points became asymmetrical. When the wingbeat amplitude and frequency of the three wings were used as input in a simple aerodynamic model, the estimation of total aerodynamic force was not significantly different (paired t-test, p = 0.73) from the force produced by the four wings during normal flight. Thus, the removal of one wing resulted in adjustments of the motions of the remaining three wings, exemplifying the precision and plasticity of coordination between the operational wings. Such coordination is vital for precise maneuvering during normal flight but it also provides the means to maintain flight when some of the wings are severely damaged.
- Flapping flight
- Flight control