Study: horses instinctively calculate how to move their tails

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Wednesday 17 October - 12h39 | Ian Clayton

Study: horses instinctively calculate how to move their tails

It has long been known that horses' tails help fend off flies, mosquitoes and other pests. But new research demonstrates exactly how the mechanics of this body part work. 

 - Study: horses instinctively calculate how to move their tails

Another protective aid: mosquito mesh fly sheets
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David L. Hu, a mechanical engineer and biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his graduate student Marguerite Matherne wanted to find out why horses (and elephants) swing their tails once per second. That is three times faster than the expected natural frequency for equines (based on length) – and a significant expenditure of energy, 27 times what is necessary with a pendulum effect. 

“Even a horse’s tail shouts out secrets, and engineering gives us the language to understand them,” Hu comments in a blog post on Scientific American. 

After building a tail simulator and borrowing insects from the Center for Disease Control, Matherne, a rider herself, observed that the animals need to generate air currents comparable to a mosquito's flight speed – about one metre per second or two miles per hour. When the horse does so, it can turn back as many as 50% of the insects when they get within a few centimetres of the body, Hu and Matherne say: "Although the air generated from a tail may feel negligible to us, it is a big deal to a mosquito." 

The researchers argue that their research provides further concrete evidence of the importance of horse’s tails as a defense against bugs. For more details, see the blog post here. 

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