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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jun 7;276(1664):2109-15. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0090. Epub 2009 Mar 11.

Flight costs of long, sexually selected tails in hummingbirds.

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  • 1Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


The elongated tails adorning many male birds have traditionally been thought to degrade flight performance by increasing body drag. However, aerodynamic interactions between the body and tail can be substantial in some contexts, and a short tail may actually reduce rather than increase overall drag. To test how tail length affects flight performance, we manipulated the tails of Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna) by increasing their length with the greatly elongated tail streamers of the red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) and reducing their length by removing first the rectrices and then the entire tail (i.e. all rectrices and tail covert feathers). Flight performance was measured in a wind tunnel by measuring (i) the maximum forward speed at which the birds could fly and (ii) the metabolic cost of flight while flying at airspeeds from 0 to 14 m s(-1). We found a significant interaction effect between tail treatment and airspeed: an elongated tail increased the metabolic cost of flight by up to 11 per cent, and this effect was strongest at higher flight speeds. Maximum flight speed was concomitantly reduced by 3.4 per cent. Also, removing the entire tail decreased maximum flight speed by 2 per cent, suggesting beneficial aerodynamic effects for tails of normal length. The effects of elongation are thus subtle and airspeed-specific, suggesting that diversity in avian tail morphology is associated with only modest flight costs.

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