13 November 2013

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: A fossil swift, and the origin of hummingbird flight

Hummingbird Backside Photo by Extra Medium.
Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, guest contributor Jessica Oswald explains how a new fossil of a bird that lived 52 million years ago helps explain the origins of some of nature's greatest aerial acrobats:

Swifts are able to reach the highest speeds during level flight (Chantler 1999) and hummingbirds are well known for their hovering abilities and their sideways and backward flight. Swifts and hummingbirds, while sharing the same wing bone characteristics, have different lengths of flight feathers, resulting in different wing shapes across the group, which allows them to perform their different aerial feats. Hummingbirds have shorter wings relative to their body size compared to swifts, resulting in their hovering abilities. These different wing shapes are well suited for their modern functions, but we have almost no fossils from this group, so we don’t know how the wing shapes diverged, or anything about the ecology of ancient species in this lineage.

To learn what the common ancestor of swifts and hummingbirds (or, rather, one of its early descendants) looked like, go read the whole thing.◼

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