Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 156, Supplement 1, pp 41–63 | Cite as

The design of the avian respiratory system: development, morphology and function

  • John N. Maina


The avian respiratory apparatus is separated into a gas exchanger (the lung) and ventilators (the air sacs). Synchronized bellows-like movements of the cranial and caudal air sacs ventilate the lung continuously and unidirectionally in a caudocranial direction. With the lungs practically rigid, after their insertion into the ribs and the vertebrae and on attaching to the membranous horizontal septum, surface tension is not a constraining factor to the intensity that the gas exchange tissue can subdivide. Delicate, transparent, capacious and avascular, the air sacs are not directly involved in gas exchange. The airway system comprises of a three-tiered system of passageways, namely a primary bronchus, the secondary bronchi and the tertiary bronchi (parabronchi). The crosscurrent system is formed by the perpendicular arrangement between the mass (convective) air flow in the parabronchial lumen and the centripetal (inward) flow of the venous blood in the exchange tissue; the countercurrent system consists of the centrifugal (outward) flow of air from the parabronchial lumen into the air capillaries and the centripetal (inward) flow of blood in the blood capillaries, and; the multicapillary serial arterialization system is formed by the blood capillaries and the air capillaries where venous blood is oxygenated in succession at the infinite number of points where the respiratory units contact exchange tissue. Together with the aforementioned systems, features like large capillary blood volume, extensive respiratory surface area and thin blood-gas barrier accord high pulmonary diffusing capacity of O2 that supports the high metabolic capacities and energetic lifestyles of birds.


Birds Lung Air sacs Respiration Development Flight Oxygen 



I am grateful to the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa for funding the preparation of this work and the many colleagues who have collaborated with me over the years. I wish to thank the Organizing Committee of the 26th International Ornithological Congress, held in Tokyo (Japan) in August 2014, for inviting me to give a talk at the conference. This paper is based on that presentation. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for suggestions and comments which greatly helped improve the manuscript.


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© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa

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