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Comparative power curves in bird flight


The relationship between mechanical power output and forward velocity in bird flight is controversial, bearing on the comparative physiology and ecology of locomotion1,2. Applied to flying birds, aerodynamic theory predicts that mechanical power should vary as a function of forward velocity in a U-shaped curve. The only empirical test of this theory, using the black-billed magpie (Pica pica), suggests that the mechanical power curve is relatively flat over intermediate velocities3. Here, by integrating in vivo measurements of pectoralis force and length change with quasi-steady aerodynamic models developed using data on wing and body movement, we present mechanical power curves for cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) and ringed turtle-doves (Streptopelia risoria). In contrast to the curve reported for magpies3, the power curve for cockatiels is acutely concave, whereas that for doves is intermediate in shape and shows higher mass-specific power output at most speeds. We also find that wing-beat frequency and mechanical power output do not necessarily share minima in flying birds. Thus, aspects of morphology, wing kinematics and overall style of flight can greatly affect the magnitude and shape of a species' power curve.

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Figure 1: In vivo recordings of pectoralis strain, force and work per wing-beat cycle.
Figure 2: Pectoralis power as a function of flight velocity.
Figure 3: Pectoralis power, work and wing-beat frequency as a function of flight velocity, with values expressed as a percentage of the observed within-species mean for each variable.


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We thank G. Lauder and F. Jenkins Jr for comments on this work, and the Concord Field Station staff for animal care and help with experiments. This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to A.A.B. and K.P.D., and from Murdock to B.W.T.

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Correspondence to B. W. Tobalske.

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Tobalske, B., Hedrick, T., Dial, K. et al. Comparative power curves in bird flight. Nature 421, 363–366 (2003).

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