The peregrine falcon is described as the fastest animal on Earth: during its hunting dive, known as a stoop, it can reach speeds of over 200 km per hour. The peregrine preys on other birds which it catches mid-flight, so it must intercept a moving target at these high speeds. The falcon’s strategy for successful interception was recently shown to closely match that of manmade missiles, but it was unclear how its demanding, high-speed maneuvers gave it an advantage.
In a new PLOS Computational Biology study, Robin Mills and colleagues describe how they built a computer simulation of bird flight to examine this question. Their program models the battle between peregrines and their avian prey, incorporating methods used by the falcons to perceive prey, flight behaviors and aerodynamics.
After simulating millions of attacks, the researchers showed that the peregrines’ high-speed stoops enable them to produce much higher aerodynamic forces, enhancing their maneuverability and so maximizing their chance of seizing agile prey. Nonetheless, the simulation showed that the stoops require precisely-tuned steering for a falcon to attack successfully, making this a highly specialized hunting technique.
The researchers now hope to extend their simulation to explore the hunting strategies of other raptors. “Ultimately, we aim to understand the arms race between aerial predators and their prey that has led raptors to become some of the fastest and most agile animals on Earth,” Mills says.
Research Article: Mills R, Hildenbrandt H, Taylor GK, Hemelrijk CK (2018) Physics-based simulations of aerial attacks by peregrine falcons reveal that stooping at high speed maximizes catch success against agile prey. PLoS Comput Biol 14(4): e1006044. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006044
Image Credit: Robin Mills