Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 569–580 | Cite as

The role of wing length in the evolution of avian flightlessness

  • Robert a. McCALL
  • Sean Nee
  • Paul H. Harvey


Flightlessness has evolved independently in at least 11 extant avian families. A number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain these transitions in individual families, including release from predation on oceanic islands, energetic costs of flight and use of forelimbs for activities other than flying. Few studies have sought to explore factors common to all families containing flightless species, which may explain the taxonomic distribution of flightlessness. In this study, we found that for all eight avian families which contain both flightless and flighted species, the flighted species have shorter wing lengths relative to body mass than their sister families. This result is not biased by taxon size. Models of avian aerodynamics predict that birds with relatively short wings pay a high energetic cost of flight. We suggest that these increased energetic costs of flying predispose these avian families to evolve flightless species. The various causes for the shortening of wings among flighted species of birds and the possibility of future transitions to flightlessness are discussed.

birds energetics flightlessness wing length 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert a. McCALL
    • 1
  • Sean Nee
    • 1
  • Paul H. Harvey
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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