Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 8, Issue 6, pp 639–657 | Cite as

The evolution of flightlessness: Is history important?

  • Derek A. Roff


Though most birds and insects are capable of flight (‘volant’) some species are flightless. In this paper I test the hypothesis that phylogenetic constraints have played a role in the evolution of flightlessness. If speciation occurred after the evolutionary transition to flightlessness, inferences concerning the importance of particular aspects of the environment on the probability of the evolution of flightlessness may be statistically spurious because of the inflation of the sample size. Among birds, ratites and penguins illustrate the phenomenon of considerable speciation subsequent to the transition to the evolution of flightlessness. In contrast, the rails represent a group in which each flightless species probably represents a separate evolutionary transition. There are many more flightless insect species than bird species and several orders are monomorphically flightless, the sometimes enormous speciation within the order following and possibly being a consequence of the evolution of flightlessness. While it can be shown in insects that flightlessness has evolved independently many times, there are at least as many cases in which the question cannot be resolved. Therefore, in both birds and insects phylogenetic effects should not be ignored, for the number of evolutionary transitions may be much less than the number of species. The effect of incorporating phylogenetic (or at least taxonomic) constraints into the analysis of habitat factors associated with flightlessness is considered.


flightlessness wing dimorphism phylogeny evolution birds insects constraints 


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© Chapman & Hall 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek A. Roff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyMcGill UniversityMontrealCanda

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