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Concept: Bird flight


Archaeopteryx is an iconic fossil taxon with feathered wings from the Late Jurassic of Germany that occupies a crucial position for understanding the early evolution of avian flight. After over 150 years of study, its mosaic anatomy unifying characters of both non-flying dinosaurs and flying birds has remained challenging to interpret in a locomotory context. Here, we compare new data from three Archaeopteryx specimens obtained through phase-contrast synchrotron microtomography to a representative sample of archosaurs employing a diverse array of locomotory strategies. Our analyses reveal that the architecture of Archaeopteryx’s wing bones consistently exhibits a combination of cross-sectional geometric properties uniquely shared with volant birds, particularly those occasionally utilising short-distance flapping. We therefore interpret that Archaeopteryx actively employed wing flapping to take to the air through a more anterodorsally posteroventrally oriented flight stroke than used by modern birds. This unexpected outcome implies that avian powered flight must have originated before the latest Jurassic.

Concepts: Bird flight, Geometry, Flight, Jurassic, Archaeopteryx, Wing, Dinosaur, Bird


Despite a wealth of fossils of Mesozoic birds revealing evidence of plumage and other soft-tissue structures, the epidermal and dermal anatomy of their wing’s patagia remain largely unknown. We describe a distal forelimb of an enantiornithine bird from the Lower Cretaceous limestones of Las Hoyas, Spain, which reveals the overall morphology of the integument of the wing and other connective structures associated with the insertion of flight feathers. The integumentary anatomy, and myological and arthrological organization of the new fossil is remarkably similar to that of modern birds, in which a system of small muscles, tendons and ligaments attaches to the follicles of the remigial feathers and maintains the functional integrity of the wing during flight. The new fossil documents the oldest known occurrence of connective tissues in association with the flight feathers of birds. Furthermore, the presence of an essentially modern connective arrangement in the wing of enantiornithines supports the interpretation of these primitive birds as competent fliers.

Concepts: Dinosaur, Feather, Bird anatomy, Evolution, Flight feather, Bird flight, Wing, Bird


Some of the greatest transformations in vertebrate history involve developmental and evolutionary origins of avian flight. Flight is the most power-demanding mode of locomotion, and volant adult birds have many anatomical features that presumably help meet these demands. However, 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. Though skeletons and feathers are the common link between extinct and extant theropods and figure prominently in discussions on flight performance (extant birds) and flight origins (extinct theropods), skeletal inter-workings are hidden from view and their functional relationship with aerodynamically active wings is not known. For the first time, we use X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology to visualize skeletal movement in developing birds, and explore how development of the avian flight apparatus corresponds with ontogenetic trajectories in skeletal kinematics, aerodynamic performance, and the locomotor transition from pre-flight flapping behaviors to full flight capacity. 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. In conjunction with previous work, 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.

Concepts: Locomotion, Bird flight, Flight, Chukar Partridge, Aerodynamics, Dinosaur, Wing, Bird


Information about self-motion and obstacles in the environment is encoded by optic flow, the movement of images on the eye. Decades of research have revealed that flying insects control speed, altitude, and trajectory by a simple strategy of maintaining or balancing the translational velocity of images on the eyes, known as pattern velocity. It has been proposed that birds may use a similar algorithm but this hypothesis has not been tested directly. We examined the influence of pattern velocity on avian flight by manipulating the motion of patterns on the walls of a tunnel traversed by Anna’s hummingbirds. Contrary to prediction, we found that lateral course control is not based on regulating nasal-to-temporal pattern velocity. Instead, birds closely monitored feature height in the vertical axis, and steered away from taller features even in the absence of nasal-to-temporal pattern velocity cues. For vertical course control, we observed that birds adjusted their flight altitude in response to upward motion of the horizontal plane, which simulates vertical descent. Collectively, our results suggest that birds avoid collisions using visual cues in the vertical axis. Specifically, we propose that birds monitor the vertical extent of features in the lateral visual field to assess distances to the side, and vertical pattern velocity to avoid collisions with the ground. These distinct strategies may derive from greater need to avoid collisions in birds, compared with small insects.

Concepts: Horizontal plane, Optic nerve, Insect, Insect flight, Flight, Scientific method, Bird flight, Flying and gliding animals


Globally, billions of flying animals undergo seasonal migrations, many of which occur at night. The temporal and spatial scales at which migrations occur and our inability to directly observe these nocturnal movements makes monitoring and characterizing this critical period in migratory animals' life cycles difficult. Remote sensing, therefore, has played an important role in our understanding of large-scale nocturnal bird migrations. Weather surveillance radar networks in Europe and North America have great potential for long-term low-cost monitoring of bird migration at scales that have previously been impossible to achieve. Such long-term monitoring, however, poses a number of challenges for the ornithological and ecological communities: how does one take advantage of this vast data resource, integrate information across multiple sensors and large spatial and temporal scales, and visually represent the data for interpretation and dissemination, considering the dynamic nature of migration? We assembled an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, meteorologists, computer scientists, and graphic designers to develop two different flow visualizations, which are interactive and open source, in order to create novel representations of broad-front nocturnal bird migration to address a primary impediment to long-term, large-scale nocturnal migration monitoring. We have applied these visualization techniques to mass bird migration events recorded by two different weather surveillance radar networks covering regions in Europe and North America. These applications show the flexibility and portability of such an approach. The visualizations provide an intuitive representation of the scale and dynamics of these complex systems, are easily accessible for a broad interest group, and are biologically insightful. Additionally, they facilitate fundamental ecological research, conservation, mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts, improvement of meteorological products, and public outreach, education, and engagement.

Concepts: Cuckoo, Weather, Ornithology, Ecology, Bird flight, Human migration, Bird, Bird migration


Excessive or misdirected artificial light at night (ALAN) produces light pollution that influences several aspects of the biology and ecology of birds, including disruption of circadian rhythms and disorientation during flight. Many migrating birds traverse large expanses of land twice every year at night when ALAN illuminates the sky. Considering the extensive and increasing encroachment of light pollution around the world, we evaluated the association of the annual mean ALAN intensity over land within the geographic ranges of 298 nocturnally migrating bird species with five factors: phase of annual cycle, mean distance between breeding and non-breeding ranges, range size, global hemisphere of range, and IUCN category of conservation concern. Light pollution within geographic ranges was relatively greater during the migration season, for shorter-distance migrants, for species with smaller ranges, and for species in the western hemisphere. Our results suggest that migratory birds may be subject to the effects of light pollution particularly during migration, the most critical stage in their annual cycle. We hope these results will spur further research on how light pollution affects not only migrating birds, but also other highly mobile animals throughout their annual cycle.

Concepts: Seabird, Lighting, Bird flight, Light pollution, Cuckoo, Albatross, Bird migration, Bird


In this paper we report the discovery of non-plumage soft tissues in Confuciusornis, a basal beaked bird from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota in northeastern China. Various soft tissues are visualized and interpreted through the use of laser-stimulated fluorescence, providing much novel anatomical information about this early bird, specifically reticulate scales covering the feet, and the well-developed and robust pro- and postpatagium. We also include a direct comparison between the forelimb soft tissues of Confuciusornis and modern avian patagia. Furthermore, apparently large, fleshy phalangeal pads are preserved on the feet. The reticulate scales, robust phalangeal pads as well as the highly recurved pedal claws strongly support Confuciusornis as an arboreal bird. Reticulate scales are more rounded than scutate scales and do not overlap, thus allowing for more flexibility in the toe. The extent of the pro- and postpatagium and the robust primary feather rachises are evidence that Confuciusornis was capable of powered flight, contrary to previous reports suggesting otherwise. A unique avian wing shape is also reconstructed based on plumage preserved. These soft tissues combined indicate an arboreal bird with the capacity for short-term (non-migratory) flight, and suggest that, although primitive, Confuciusornis already possessed many relatively advanced avian anatomical characteristics.

Concepts: Feather, Bird flight, Early Cretaceous, Cretaceous, Soft tissue, Wing, Tissues, Bird


Billions of nocturnally migrating birds move through increasingly photopolluted skies, relying on cues for navigation and orientation that artificial light at night (ALAN) can impair. However, no studies have quantified avian responses to powerful ground-based light sources in urban areas. We studied effects of ALAN on migrating birds by monitoring the beams of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum’s “Tribute in Light” in New York, quantifying behavioral responses with radar and acoustic sensors and modeling disorientation and attraction with simulations. This single light source induced significant behavioral alterations in birds, even in good visibility conditions, in this heavily photopolluted environment, and to altitudes up to 4 km. We estimate that the installation influenced ≈1.1 million birds during our study period of 7 d over 7 y. When the installation was illuminated, birds aggregated in high densities, decreased flight speeds, followed circular flight paths, and vocalized frequently. Simulations revealed a high probability of disorientation and subsequent attraction for nearby birds, and bird densities near the installation exceeded magnitudes 20 times greater than surrounding baseline densities during each year’s observations. However, behavioral disruptions disappeared when lights were extinguished, suggesting that selective removal of light during nights with substantial bird migration is a viable strategy for minimizing potentially fatal interactions among ALAN, structures, and birds. Our results also highlight the value of additional studies describing behavioral patterns of nocturnally migrating birds in powerful lights in urban areas as well as conservation implications for such lighting installations.

Concepts: Stork, Seabird, Bird flight, Cuckoo, Light, Lighting, Bird, Bird migration


Being airborne is considered to be energetically more costly as compared with being on the ground or in water. Birds migrating or foraging while airborne are thought to spend some time resting on the ground or water to recover from these energetically demanding activities. However, for several decades ornithologists have claimed that some swifts may stay airborne for almost their whole lifetime. Here we present the first unequivocal evidence that an individual bird of the Alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba) can stay airborne for migration, foraging and roosting over a period of more than 6 months. To date, such long-lasting locomotive activities had been reported only for animals living in the sea. Even for an aerodynamically optimized bird, like the Alpine swift, flying requires a considerable amount of energy for continuous locomotive control. Our data imply that all vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be perpetuated during flight.

Concepts: Hummingbird, Swallow, Apodiformes, Time, Bird flight, Swift, Apus, Bird


Testing hypotheses of neuromuscular function during locomotion ideally requires the ability to record cellular responses and to stimulate the cells being investigated to observe downstream behaviors [1]. The inability to stimulate in free flight has been a long-standing hurdle for insect flight studies. The miniaturization of computation and communication technologies has delivered ultra-small, radio-enabled neuromuscular recorders and stimulators for untethered insects [2-8]. Published stimulation targets include the areas in brain potentially responsible for pattern generation in locomotion [5], the nerve chord for abdominal flexion [9], antennal muscles [2, 10], and the flight muscles (or their excitatory junctions) [7, 11-13]. However, neither fine nor graded control of turning has been demonstrated in free flight, and responses to the stimulation vary widely [2, 5, 7, 9]. Technological limitations have precluded hypotheses of function validation requiring exogenous stimulation during flight. We investigated the role of a muscle involved in wing articulation during flight in a coleopteran. We set out to identify muscles whose stimulation produced a graded turning in free flight, a feat that would enable fine steering control not previously demonstrated. We anticipated that gradation might arise either as a function of the phase of muscle firing relative to the wing stroke (as in the classic fly b1 muscle [14, 15] or the dorsal longitudinal and ventral muscles of moth [16]), or due to regulated tonic control, in which phase-independent summation of twitch responses produces varying amounts of force delivered to the wing linkages [15, 17, 18].

Concepts: Bird flight, Neuromuscular disease, Muscle, Flight, Nerve, Flying and gliding animals, Insect flight, Insect