Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 153, Supplement 1, pp 193-198

First online:

The legs: a key to bird evolutionary success

  • Anick AbourachidAffiliated withDépartement d’Ecologie et Gestion de la Biodiversité, UMR 7179 CNRS, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris Email author 
  • , Elizabeth HöflingAffiliated withDepartamento de Zoologia, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade de São Paulo

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Birds are the most diverse and largest group of extant tetrapods. They show marked variability, yet much of this variation is superficial and due to feather and bill color and shape. Under the feathers, the skeleto-muscular system is rather constant throughout the bird group. The adaptation to flight is the explanation for this uniformity. The more obvious morphological adaptations for flight are the wings, but the trunk is always rigid, the tail is short and the neck is flexible, since all these features are correlated with flying behaviour. Unrelated to the exigencies of flight, the legs always have three long bones, and all the birds walk on their toes. This leg structure is a striking plesiomorphic feature that was already present in related dinosaurs. The multi-purpose potential of the legs is the result of the skeletal architecture of a body with three segmented flexed legs. This configuration provides mechanical properties that allow the use of the legs as propulsive, paddling, foraging or grooming tools. It is the association of diverse modes of locomotion—walking, running, hopping, flying and swimming—that have enabled the birds to colonize almost all the environments on Earth.


Locomotion Adaptations Behaviour Hindlimbs Functional morphology