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UC Riverside Biologist’s Fascination With Hummingbirds Brings Magic in the Lab

Biologist’s Lab at UC Riverside Is a Hummingbird Health Spa

Douglas Altshuler’s research on hummingbirds is key feature of PBS documentary airing Jan. 10

(January 7, 2010)

Douglas Altshuler is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.Enlarge

Douglas Altshuler is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Research on avian flight by the University of California, Riverside’s Douglas Altshuler will be featured in the program “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” on the PBS show “Nature,” premiering Sunday, Jan. 10 (click here to check local listings).

The hour-long episode includes a segment that shows how Altshuler tests the limits of hummingbirds’ aerial agility in his lab. The segment also shows high-speed footage, taken by high-tech cameras, of hummingbirds in flight.

“My lab is interested in understanding the aerodynamics of avian flight, the underlying neurobiology that makes such flight possible, and the evolution of avian flight mechanisms,” said Altshuler, an assistant professor of biology. “Hummingbirds, which fly like insects but think like birds and other vertebrates, provide an excellent model for exploring these topics.”

Ann Prum, the award-winning filmmaker who made “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air,” chose to include Altshuler in the documentary because of his work on hummingbird flight.

“I was looking for stories that showed how new science and new technologies are showing us the hummingbird in a new way,” she said. “Doug’s work with high speed cameras and computer analysis of flight allows us to really break apart how the hummingbird goes about its aerial acrobatics. His work is crucial to our understanding of how hummingbirds perform their amazing flight maneuvers.”

Hummingbirds are the smallest warm-blooded creatures on the planet. One of nature’s most accomplished athletes, they can hover, fly backwards and even fly upside down.

Altshuler first became interested in hummingbirds as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked on how physiology influences animal behavior.

“Later I got interested in how the hummingbird brain coordinates the actions of the wings, what control algorithms does the brain use to achieve flight, and how do these birds manage to hover as they gather flower nectar,” he said. “I became interested also in what kind of adaptations these specialized birds had to make to allow for such hovering behavior.”

Altshuler explained that the control algorithms hummingbird brains use to enable hovering behavior are of especial interest to engineers working on devices mimicking animal flight behavior.

“We know comparatively little about how moving wings enable flight,” he said. “Flying is an unstable behavior, and corrections have to be made continually. Understanding how the hummingbird brain is able to make a large number of corrections so swiftly is essential for mimicking hovering and other complex flight behaviors for biomimetic engineering.”

The National Science Foundation currently funds Altshuler’s research on hummingbirds.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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