Alpine Swifts and Pterosaurs

Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) on the wing for 7 months at a time! Check out that wing shape. Remind you of anything prehistoric?

Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) on the wing for 7 months at a time! Check out that wing shape. Remind you of anything prehistoric?

An interesting NatGeo post on the Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) and its incredible but true 7 months (200 days) on the wing (Liechti et al. 2013) raised my curiosity about what sort of wing must such a bird have?

Turns out to have a very pterosaurian wing (short chord version) in ventral view. Nat Geo reports, Their long wings make them fast and manoeuvrable, allowing them to scythe through the air in search of small insects and other “aerial plankton”.

And why do they fly continuously? Again, Liechti has speculations rather than answers. They may exploit food sources that other birds can’t touch, avoid predators by flying through the night, or stay beyond the reach of parasites like malarial mosquitoes. “These aren’t very convincing,” he admits, “but for sure, there’s a cost to staying in the air, so there must be a benefit.”

Swifts are apodids, famous for their tiny feet (they don’t perch that often). That takes us to the pterosaurs with tiny feet and spindly legs, the ornithocheirids (Fig. 2, 3).

Worth comparing for wing shape and foot size.
Evidently these large pterosaurs were likewise rarely grounded, based on their tiny feet and giant wings, especially compared to other pterosaurs.

Figure 2. The ornithocheirid pterosaur, Arthurdactylus. Note the tiny size of its feet.

Figure 2. The ornithocheirid pterosaur, Arthurdactylus. Note the tiny size of its feet and the huge wings. Like a swift, this pterosaur could have slept while on the wing. The spindly fingers were no good for grappling tree trunks.

Awkward on the ground.
Graceful in the air. This is the reason why the ornithocheirid humerus is so much larger than the femur – not the forelimb launch hypothesis! They put everything into their wings, which transport them to food. Their legs simply enable them to walk out of their eggs.

Figure 2. Arthurdactylus in dorsal view while flying. Note the knife-like wing shape,  that could be maneuvered, like that of a sail plane or swift.

Figure 2. Arthurdactylus in dorsal view while flying. Note the knife-like wing shape, that could be maneuvered, like that of a sail plane or swift. Wings back = less drag, greater speed.

Basically the pterosaur wing in ornithocheirds is a tapering cone, with a large diameter proximally and a tiny diameter distally. This has proved to be a very strong structure from outstretched traffic lights to fishing rods.

Outstretched to swept back
As in swifts, the wings of pterosaurs could have maneuvered in flight from strictly lateral to backswept. Each configuration has their own use, advantage and disadvantage.

References
Liechti, Witvliet, Weber & Bachler 2013. First evidence of a 200-day non-stop flight in a bird. Nature Communications.http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3554

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