Biomechanics and physiology of gait selection in flying birds

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Two wing-beat gaits, distinguished by the presence or absence of lift production during the upstroke, are currently used to describe avian flight. Vortex-visualization studies indicate that lift is produced only during the downstroke in the vortex-ring gait and that lift is produced continuously in the continuous-vortex gait. Tip-reversal and feathered upstrokes represent different forms of vortex-ring gait distinguished by wing kinematics. Useful aerodynamic forces may be produced during tip-reversal upstroke in slow flight and during a feathered upstroke in fast flight, but it is probable that downstroke forces are much greater in magnitude. Uncertainty about the function of these types of upstroke may be resolved when more data are available on wake structure in different flight speeds and modes. Inferring from wing kinematics and available data on wake structure, birds with long wings or wings of high aspect ratio use a vortex-ring gait with tip-reversal upstroke at slow speeds, a vortex-ring gait with a feathered upstroke at intermediate speeds, and a continuous-vortex gait at fast speeds. Birds with short wings or wings of low aspect ratio use a vortex-ring gait with a feathered upstroke at all speeds. Regardless of wing shape, species tend to use a vortex-ring gait for acceleration and a continuous-vortex gait for deceleration. Some correlations may exist between gait selection and the function of the muscular and respiratory system. However, overall variation in wing kinematics, muscle activity, and respiratory activity is continuous rather than categorical. To further our understanding of gait selection in flying birds, it is important to test whether upstroke function varies in a similar manner. Transitions between lifting and nonlifting upstrokes may be more subtle and gradual than implied by a binomial scheme of classification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)736-750
Number of pages15
JournalPhysiological and Biochemical Zoology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2000


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