Phylogenetics and ecomorphology of emarginate primary feathers

Brett Klaassen van Oorschot, Ho Kwan Tang, Bret W. Tobalske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Wing tip slots are a distinct morphological trait broadly expressed across the avian clade, but are generally perceived to be unique to soaring raptors. These slots are the result of emarginations on the distal leading and trailing edges of primary feathers, and allow the feathers to behave as individual airfoils. Research suggests these emarginate feathers are an adaptation to increase glide efficiency by mitigating induced drag in a manner similar to aircraft winglets. If so, we might expect birds known for gliding and soaring to exhibit emarginate feather morphology; however, that is not always the case. Here, we explore emargination across the avian clade, and examine associations between emargination and ecological and morphological variables. Pelagic birds exhibit pointed, high-aspect ratio wings without slots, whereas soaring terrestrial birds exhibit prominent wing-tip slots. Thus, we formed four hypotheses: (1) Emargination is segregated according to habitat (terrestrial, coastal/freshwater, pelagic). (2) Emargination is positively correlated with mass. (3) Emargination varies inversely with aspect ratio and directly with wing loading and disc loading. (4) Emargination varies according to flight style, foraging style, and diet. We found that emargination falls along a continuum that varies with habitat: Pelagic species tend to have zero emargination, coastal/freshwater birds have some emargination, and terrestrial species have a high degree of emargination. Among terrestrial and coastal/freshwater species, the degree of emargination is positively correlated with mass. We infer this may be the result of selection to mitigate induced power requirements during slow flight that otherwise scale adversely with increasing body size. Since induced power output is greatest during slow flight, we hypothesize that emargination may be an adaptation to assist vertical take-off and landing rather than glide efficiency as previously hypothesized.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)936-947
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Morphology
Volume278
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 2017

Keywords

  • feather asymmetry
  • notch
  • slot
  • wing
  • winglet

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