Flapping before flight

This is a long overdue and very welcome paper
Many paleontologists of the past thought flight appeared after gliding. This is the so-called trees down theory seen in this PBS video on Microraptor. Others thought the flight stroke appeared while clutching bugs in the air. This is the so-called ground up theory. Through experimentation Ken Dial found out that baby birds armed with only protowings flapped them vigorously to help them climb trees, no matter the angle of incline. Now the kinematics of this wing/leg cooperation are presented in Heers et al. 2016, students of Ken Dial.

Key thoughts from the abstract:
“Juvenile birds, like the first winged dinosaurs, lack many hallmarks of advanced flight capacity. Instead of large wings they have small “protowings”, and instead of robust, interlocking forelimb skeletons their limbs are more gracile and their joints less constrained. Such traits are often thought to preclude extinct theropods from powered flight, yet young birds with similarly rudimentary anatomies flap-run up slopes and even briefly fly, thereby challenging longstanding ideas on skeletal and feather function in the theropod-avian lineage.
For the first time, we use X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology to visualize skeletal movement in developing birds. Our findings reveal that developing chukars (Alectoris chukar) with rudimentary flight apparatuses acquire an “avian” flight stroke early in ontogeny, initially by using their wings and legs cooperatively and, as they acquire flight capacity, counteracting ontogenetic increases in aerodynamic output with greater skeletal channelization.Juvenile birds thereby demonstrate that the initial function of developing wings is to enhance leg performance, and that aerodynamically active, flapping wings might better be viewed as adaptations or exaptations for enhancing leg performance.”
Figure 2. Cosesaurus running and flapping - slow.

Figure 1. Cosesaurus running and flapping – slow.

The same theory
can be applied to the development of wings in fenestrasaurs (Fig. 1) evolving into pterosaurs (Fig 2), as shown several years ago, but does not play a part in the development of flapping wings in bats, which do not walk upright and bipedally.
Quetzalcoatlus running like a lizard prior to takeoff.

Figure 2 Quetzalcoatlus running like a lizard prior to takeoff. Click to animate.

It should be obvious
that competing take-off theories for pterosaurs (Fig. 3) do not take into account this theory on the origin of flapping. Just one more reason not to support the forelimb wing launch hypothesis that has become so popular with ptero-artists recently.

Unsuccessul Pteranodon wing launch based on Habib (2008).

Figure 3. Unsuccessul Pteranodon wing launch based on Habib (2008) in which the initial propulsion was not enough to permit wing unfolding and the first downstroke.

getting into the air is difficult if you’ve never done it before. Using both your arms AND your legs to get up speed is a good idea that has worked in the past and in present day laboratories.

Heers AM, Baier DB, Jackson BE & Dial  KP 2016. 
Flapping before Flight: High Resolution, Three-Dimensional Skeletal Kinematics of Wings and Legs during Avian Development. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153446
http: // journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153446


2 thoughts on “Flapping before flight

  1. HOW can nature and reality POSSIBLY stand up to a theory? No living animal I know of has any pair of limbs strong enough to launch a quarter ton beast to flight speed in one shot. A pterosaur strong enough to do that could swat a T. rex off a piss pot.

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