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Evolution of avian flight: muscles and constraints on performance

August 31 , 2016

Competing hypotheses about evolutionary origins of flight are the ‘fundamental wing-stroke’ and ‘directed aerial descent’ hypotheses. Support for the fundamental wing-stroke hypothesis is that extant birds use flapping of their wings to climb even before they are able to fly; there are no reported examples of incrementally increasing use of wing movements in gliding transitioning to flapping. An open question is whether locomotor styles must evolve initially for efficiency or if they might instead arrive due to efficacy. The proximal muscles of the avian wing output work and power for flight, and new research is exploring functions of the distal muscles in relation to dynamic changes in wing shape. It will be useful to test the relative contributions of the muscles of the forearm compared with inertial and aerodynamic loading of the wing upon dynamic morphing. Body size has dramatic effects upon flight performance. New research has revealed that mass-specific muscle power declines with increasing body mass among species. This explains the constraints associated with being large. Hummingbirds are the only species that can sustain hovering. Their ability to generate force, work and power appears to be limited by time for activation and deactivation within their wingbeats of high frequency. Most small birds use flap-bounding flight, and this flight style may offer an energetic advantage over continuous flapping during fast flight or during flight into a headwind. The use of flap-bounding during slow flight remains enigmatic. Flap-bounding birds do not appear to be constrained to use their primary flight muscles in a fixed manner. To improve understanding of the functional significance of flap-bounding, the energetic costs and the relative use of alternative styles by a given species in nature merit study.

Bret W. Tobalske (2016)
Evolution of avian flight: muscles and constraints on performance
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: 371 20150383
DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0383


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