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Am Nat. 2004 Mar;163(3):341-57. Epub 2004 Mar 9.

Limits on the evolution of tail ornamentation in birds.

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Department of Biological Science, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, United Kingdom.


In birds, elongated tails are one of the most common and most studied ornaments. However, the tail also has an aerodynamic function, playing a role in turning and slow flight. If a tail is to function as an ornament, then there will be an inevitable conflict between the aerodynamic role and the signaling role. Aerodynamic theory has developed to the point where it is possible to predict the aerodynamic and mechanical consequences of ornamental tails of different sizes and shapes. Tail elongation will influence many different mechanical and aerodynamic parameters. For at least some and possibly all of these parameters, there will be limits that are placed by the bird's anatomy, morphology, or physiology on the extent to which the effect of tail elongation could be tolerated. For example, if a particular tail morphology meant that the power required to fly exceeded the power available from the flight muscles, then the bird would obviously be unable to fly with such a tail. To examine whether these considerations could limit the development of ornamental tails, the effect of long tails of different shapes was examined on three parameters: static balance, lift-to-drag ratio, and the cost of flight. All three of these parameters were found to limit the range of possible tail morphologies that could be developed by birds. These limits were most acute for small birds, which may not be able to operate with a long tail of any shape. Slightly larger birds would be able to develop elongated streamers and forked tails but not pintails or wedge-shaped tails. Medium to large birds are less constrained and could develop a much wider range of tails than small birds, but there will always be limits to the sizes of tail ornament that could be developed. Thus the physical consequences of ornamentation on ecology and behavior are likely to be responsible for some of the patterns of ornamentation observed in nature.

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