Study Overturns Long-Held Belief on Hummingbirds
They don't drink the way researchers have thought for 200 years
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 19, 2015 9:03 PM CDT

(Newser) – Hummingbirds beat their wings approximately 50 times per second, but that's nothing compared to how fast they can drink. A study out of the University of Connecticut debunks nearly 200 years of scientific thinking on how hummingbirds accomplish that task, with results showing the tiny birds can sip up to 10 drops of nectar every 15 milliseconds, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Scientists have long believed hummingbirds drank by wicking, a process that "allows liquid to flow through small spaces without benefit of gravity," explains UConn Today. Researchers were skeptical of this relatively slow method because it would limit hummingbirds' energy intake, and they set off on a five-year study to find out how the birds really do their drinking. "It turns out that hummingbird tongues do not wick—they pump," sums up the Monitor.

Researchers took video of 18 hummingbird species drinking from specially made artificial flowers in the wilds of the US, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. They discovered that hummingbirds drink by using their tongues as "elastic micropumps." This video shows the process, and LiveScience explains it like so:

  • "After zipping toward a flower, the hummingbird flattens its outstretched tongue, and 'the compressed tongue remains flattened until it contacts the nectar,' the researchers wrote in the study. 'After contact with the nectar surface, the tongue reshapes, filling entirely with nectar.'"
The last move involves a deft bend of the tongue to pull in the nectar, and it all takes place in less than a tenth of a second, according to UConn Today—an impressive feat for something thinner than a fishing line. (Meanwhile, a tongue-rolling myth in humans has been debunked.)