Dragonflies Do Backflips Even When Unconscious

New research might translate to drone technology.

Common darter dragonfly, Sympetrum striolatum, hovering over flower
Common darter dragonfly, Sympetrum striolatum, hovering over flower. Westend61 / Getty Images

Dragonflies perform some pretty incredible aerial gymnastics. A new study finds that the insects can do upside-down backflips to right themselves midair. They can even do this when they’re unconscious, and sometimes even when they’re dead. The acrobatic findings might someday lead to better drone technology, researchers say.

Dragonflies are fast and agile fliers. They can soar and flit in any direction, including sideways and backwards, and can hover in place. But these graceful insects can occasionally lose their balance and can end up upside-down.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers found that dragonflies often perform upside-down backflips in order to turn right-side up. This maneuver is called “pitching.”

In order to study exactly how the colorful insects managed the maneuver, scientists collected 20 common darter dragonflies. They cooled them down (which stuns them into a state of torpor), and cemented on tiny magnets and motion tracking dots similar to those used for CGI imagery in movies. 

“We try to place markers in areas that won’t bother the dragonfly, and the added weight is less than 10% of their bodyweight overall, well within their carrying capacity,” lead author Sam Fabian of the Imperial College London Department of Bioengineering tells Treehugger.

“This species is relatively short lived, and we caught only fully mature adults, so over the course of several weeks, the dragonflies in our care died of natural causes. We always try to make best use of our animals and made sure to get the maximum amount of data that we could. This helps reduce the number of individuals we need to use in experiments, an important factor within our methodology.”

They then magnetically attached each insect to a magnetic platform either right-side up or upside-down, tilted with different variations, before releasing them into a freefall. The motion tracking dots created 3D models of their movements, which were recorded by high-speed cameras.

“We would expect the dragonflies to correct themselves, but we weren’t sure how they would achieve it,” Fabian says.

“We were surprised to see the dragonflies effectively backflip whilst upside down, as most animal’s roll out of a fall. We didn’t only observe backflipping. The dragonflies displayed a variety of different behaviours, but they appear to have a ‘default’ backflip which is the most common, and was replicated even in unconscious animals.”

dragonfly flipping midair
A high-speed camera captures a dragonfly flipping midair. Lin Lab

Conscious dragonflies somersaulted backwards to right themselves. Unconscious dragonflies did the same backflip, but just more slowly.

“Without conscious control, we would have thought the dragonflies would tumble. Instead, we saw them flip the right way up,” Fabian says. “This was astonishing as we normally think about dragonflies and other insects having to work constantly to maintain a stable upright orientation.”

The researchers also dropped dead dragonflies to see what would happen. They didn’t flip, but instead just nose-dived. But when the researchers posed the insects' wings into positions mimicking live or unconscious dragonflies, they did the backflip, but with a little extra spin.

Dragonflies and Drones

The research suggests that the dragonfly bodies generate an inner righting maneuver.

“During flight, there will of course be all sorts of active control, but this work demonstrates that particular poses can passively right the dragonfly, without control inputs,” Fabian says. “This is novel when thinking about insects and would allow the dragonfly to use less effort and energy when navigating through the air.” 

Fabian says the findings can be used to help design drones that can right themselves or minimize how much energy is used to maneuver and navigate.

Potential applications include designing small drones that can minimize their energy use or right themselves without extensive processing from the onboard computer, he said.

“We don’t yet know what the small drones of the future will look like, but by understanding the functionality of the shape and structure of flying insects, we can hopefully nudge their design in more efficient and fruitful directions.”

View Article Sources
  1. Fabian, Samuel T., et al. "Dragondrop: A Novel Passive Mechanism for Aerial Righting in the Dragonfly." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 288, no. 1944, 2021, p. 20202676, doi:10.1098/rspb.2020.2676

  2. Caduto, Michael J. "Dragonflies: Marvelous on Their Missions." Center for Northern Woodlands Education, 2008.