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At Cornell

Finding Answers to Common
Questions in Unexpected Places

David Harris

David R. Harris

This issue of Connecting with Cornell features several articles about things that fly. They include John Hermanson on bats, Timothy DeVoogd on birds, Jane Wang on dragonflies, and Kenneth McClane on butterflies.

Perhaps surprisingly, only one of these articles focuses on flight, and it is not the article about birds. Each illustrates how Cornell researchers find answers to common questions in unexpected places. Hermanson details how he and a group of undergraduate and graduate students have studied the bats of Trinidad to understand something that we don’t usually associate with bats—walking.

DeVoogd studies birds to gain insights into something we don’t usually associate with birds—learning. It turns out that birds are excellent for studying the neurobiology of learning because the more complex a male’s song, the more attractive he is as a mate. DeVoogd and associates have been able to observe the brains of young birds learning complex songs. They have also been able to observe how the brain’s capacity for learning responds to environmental conditions.

Jane Wang and her associates are fascinated by the mechanics of flight, a topic that has intrigued humans for millennia. Rather than focusing on birds, however, their research concentrates on a seeming anomaly in the world of flight—dragonflies. From Wang we learn that very little is known about the mechanics of insect flight. How exactly does a dragonfly hover? How does it move forward and turn? In addition to helping us understand this unusual creature, Wang’s answers to these and other questions about dragonflies are already yielding insights that will improve aircraft design.

Finally, Kenneth McClane reminds us that in the hands of an artist, butterflies and crows can prompt deep reflection about the mundane and the spiritual.

I hope that you enjoy these examples of how Cornell researchers find answers to common questions in unconventional places. For more, please visit the Cornell website and research portals, such as the Institute for the Social Sciences, the Society for the Humanities, and the Virtual Life Sciences Library.


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