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Desert Diary
Biology/Red Admiral


We've all seen butterflies flitting through the desert. Fragile-looking creatures of erratic flight, seemingly at the mercy of every breath of air. But appearances are deceiving! We're only beginning to understand the level of sophistication demonstrated in insect flight. Man-made flying models require extensive—and expensive—software and powerful computer chips. A housefly apparently requires only some 3,000 brain neurons for control. Obviously, engineers would love to know how that's done, and biologists are equally fascinated.

Study of insect flight is difficult at best. Insects are small and wing-beats rapid. Although tethered insects can be used in wind tunnels, the highly unnatural conditions of flying on a leash guarantee differences from unimpeded flight. However, recent researchers managed to do high-speed photography of Red Admiral butterflies, a common stray into the northern Chihuahuan Desert. With the Red Admirals free-flying in a wind tunnel loaded with wisps of smoke that allowed analysis of air flow, new insights into butterfly flight have been achieved. This small, mentally-challenged butterfly utilizes all the known lift-generating mechanisms of flight, switching among them effortlessly.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.



Srygley, R. B., and A. L. R. Thomas. Nature, 240:660-664.

Zbikowski, R. 2002. Red admiral agility. Nature, 240:615-618.

Web Resources

Red Admiral