Even In Slo-Mo, A Hummingbird Feeds Pretty Fast

A new study shows that the tiny birds' tongues are way more complex than we thought.

Hummingbirds get a lot of attention for their rapidly beating wings and the incredible maneuvers they make possible, and rightly so. But a new super slow-mo video (above) shows that their bizarre nectar-grabbing tongues are pretty amazing too -- and way stranger than anyone knew.

For nearly 200 years, scientists thought hummingbirds used their tongues in a slow "wicking" technique to absorb nectar. But the researchers responsible for the video and related research say the tongues act more like tiny nectar-sucking pumps.

"What we found is that there is actually a micro-pump, which is transforming the whole tongue shape, and that transformation of the tongue shape is what actually pulls the fluid inside," Dr. Alejandro Rico-Guevara, a research scientist at the University of Connecticut and lead author of a paper about the research, told Discover magazine.

The researchers used high-speed cameras to film the tongues of 18 hummingbird species as the birds sipped fluid from transparent feeders. The feeders simulated the shape, nectar volumes, and concentrations of flowers.

Analysis of the video revealed that each hummingbird's tongue features skinny, tube-like grooves that swell slightly as they draw in fluid and "pump" the fluid to the bird's mouth.

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Slow-motion video of a hummingbird's tongue in action. The tiny birds typically lap up nectar by licking 15 to 20 times a second.

The researchers tested their "pump" theory by comparing a computer model of the micro-pumping action to a computer model of the previously held "wicking" theory, Live Science reported. The comparison showed the micro-pumping action allowed hummingbirds to lick quickly, up to 20 times per second.

The data collected in the study represents the largest data set on hummingbird feeding mechanics yet, according to the researchers. They hope the data will yield new insights into the relationship between flowers' nectar and the birds.

"Nectar is kind of a bribe," Dr. Margaret Rubega, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the university and a co-author of the study, said in a written statement. "It’s payment for the hummingbird to come frequently enough so that they will go off and act as pollinators to other flowers of the same species."

The study was published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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