The evolution of wing morphology among birds, and its functional consequences, remains an open question, despite much attention. This is in part because the connection between form and function is difficult to test directly. To address this deficit, in prior work we used computational modeling and sensitivity analysis to interrogate the impact of altering wing aspect ratio, camber, and Reynolds number on aerodynamic performance, revealing the performance landscapes that avian evolution has explored. In the present work, we used a dataset of three-dimensionally scanned bird wings coupled with the performance landscapes to test two hypotheses regarding the evolutionary diversification of wing morphology associated with gliding flight behavior: 1) gliding birds would exhibit higher wing aspect ratio and greater chordwise camber than their non-gliding counterparts; and 2) that two strategies for gliding flight exist, with divergent morphological conformations. In support of our first hypothesis, we found evidence of morphological divergence in both wing aspect ratio and camber between gliders and non-gliders, suggesting that wing morphology of birds that utilize gliding flight is under different selective pressures than the wings of non-gliding taxa. Furthermore, we found that these morphological differences also yielded differences in coefficient of lift measured both at the maximum lift to drag ratio and at minimum sinking speed, with gliding taxa exhibiting higher coefficient of lift in both cases. Minimum sinking speed was also lower in gliders than non-gliders. However, contrary to our hypothesis, we found that the maximum ratio of the coefficient of lift to the coefficient of drag differed between gliders and non-gliders. This may point to the need for gliders to maintain high lift capability for takeoff and landing independent of gliding performance, or could be due to the divergence in flight styles among gliders, as not all gliders are predicted to optimize either quantity. However, direct evidence for the existence of two morphologically defined gliding flight strategies was equivocal, with only slightly stronger support for an evolutionary model positing separate morphological optima for these strategies than an alternative model positing a single peak. The absence of a clear result may be an artifact of low statistical power owing to a relatively small sample size of gliding flyers expected to follow the “aerial search” strategy.
Jonathan Rader, Tyson L Hedrick, Yanyan He, Lindsay D Waldrop, Functional morphology of gliding flight II. Morphology follows predictions of gliding performance, Integrative and Comparative Biology, , icaa126, https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icaa126
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