Ontogeny of lift and drag production in ground birds

Ashley M. Heers, Bret W. Tobalske, Kenneth P. Dial

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


The juvenile period is often a crucial interval for selective pressure on locomotor ability. Although flight is central to avian biology, little is known about factors that limit flight performance during development. To improve understanding of flight ontogeny, we used a propeller (revolving wing) model to test how wing shape and feather structure influence aerodynamic performance during development in the precocial chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar, 4 to >100 days post hatching).We spun wings in mid-downstroke posture and measured lift (L) and drag (D) using a force plate upon which the propeller assembly was mounted. Our findings demonstrate a clear relationship between feather morphology and aerodynamic performance. Independent of size and velocity, older wings with stiffer and more asymmetrical feathers, high numbers of barbicels and a high degree of overlap between barbules generate greater L and L:D ratios than younger wings with flexible, relatively symmetrical and less cohesive feathers. The gradual transition from immature feathers and drag-based performance to more mature feathers and lift-based performance appears to coincide with ontogenetic transitions in locomotor capacity. Younger birds engage in behaviors that require little aerodynamic force and that allow D to contribute to weight support, whereas older birds may expand their behavioral repertoire by flapping with higher tip velocities and generating greater L. Incipient wings are, therefore, uniquely but immediately functional and provide flight-incapable juveniles with access to three-dimensionalenvironments and refugia. Such access may have conferred selective advantages to theropods with protowings during the evolution of avian flight.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)717-725
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2011


  • Feather
  • Flight
  • Incipient wing
  • Lift-to-drag ratio
  • Ontogeny
  • Protowing
  • Wing-assisted incline running


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