Asked to make a list of the world’s most efficient flying organisms, most people would start with some particularly noble species of bird, such as an albatross or an eagle. Few, if any, would plump for a dandelion.
And that’s a pity, because research published in the journal Nature reveals the plant, or, more specifically, its seed, to be an organism superbly adapted for travelling through the air.
What’s more, it does so by using a form of locomotion new to science.
Dandelion species form the genus Taraxacum and are well known for their distinctive globular bundles of seeds – which children and playful adults alike delight in picking up and blowing on, thence to watch scores of individual parachute-shaped seeds float gracefully away on even the faintest of breezes.
How they manage to stay aloft for so long was a question that intrigued a team of researchers led by biologist Cathal Cummins from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
To find out, the scientists carried out a series of experiments. They discovered that the key was the crown of tiny bristles at one end of the seed pod. When launched into the air, the bristles induce the formation of a ring-shaped bubble of air beneath them.
The ring acts to enhance drag, significantly slowing the seed’s descent towards the ground, keeping it aloft for as long as a kilometre.
Cummins and his colleagues calculated that the dandelion seed parachute operates about four times as efficiently as a human-made version.
“Taking a closer look at the ingenious structures in nature – like the dandelion’s parachute – can reveal novel insights,” he says. “We found a natural solution for flight that minimises the material and energy costs, which can be applied to engineering of sustainable technology.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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