Ontogeny of aerodynamics in mallards: Comparative performance and developmental implications

Terry R. Dial, Ashley M. Heers, Bret W. Tobalske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Wing morphology correlates with flight performance and ecology among adult birds, yet the impact of wing development on aerodynamic capacity is not well understood. Recent work using chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar), a precocial flier, indicates that peak coefficients of lift and drag (CL and CD) and lift-to-drag ratio (CL and CD) increase throughout ontogeny and that these patterns correspond with changes in feather microstructure. To begin to place these results in a comparative context that includes variation in life-history strategy, we used a propeller and force-plate model to study aerodynamic force production across a developmental series of the altricial-flying mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). We observed the same trend in mallards as reported for chukar in that coefficients of vertical (C V) and horizontal force (CH) and CV:C H ratio increased with age, and that measures of gross-wing morphology (aspect ratio, camber and porosity) in mallards did not account for intraspecific trends in force production. Rather, feather microstructure (feather unfurling, rachis width, feather asymmetry and barbule overlap) all were positively correlated with peak CV:CH. Throughout ontogeny, mallard primary feathers became stiffer and less transmissive to air at both macroscale (between individual feathers) and microscale (between barbs/barbules/barbicels) levels. Differences between species were manifest primarily as heterochrony of aerodynamic force development. Chukar wings generated measurable aerodynamic forces early (<8days), and improved gradually throughout a 100 day ontogenetic period. Mallard wings exhibited delayed aerodynamic force production until just prior to fledging (day 60), and showed dramatic improvement within a condensed 2-week period. These differences in timing may be related to mechanisms of escape used by juveniles, with mallards swimming to safety and chukar flap-running up slopes to take refuge. Future comparative work should test whether the need for early onset of aerodynamic force production in the chukar, compared with delayed, but rapid, change in the mallard wing, leads to a limited repertoire of flight behavior in adult chukar compared with mallards.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3693-3702
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Bird
  • Drag
  • Flight
  • Life history
  • Lift
  • Ontogeny
  • Propeller


Dive into the research topics of 'Ontogeny of aerodynamics in mallards: Comparative performance and developmental implications'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this