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Am Nat. 2006 Feb;167(2):216-29. Epub 2005 Dec 12.

Flight performance and competitive displacement of hummingbirds across elevational gradients.

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Bioengineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.


Hummingbirds, with their impressive flight ability and competitive aerial contests, make ideal candidates for applying a mechanistic approach to studying community structure. Because flight costs are influenced by abiotic factors that change systematically with altitude, elevational gradients provide natural experiments for hummingbird flight ecology. Prior attempts relied on wing disc loading (WDL) as a morphological surrogate for flight performance, but recent analyses indicate this variable does not influence either territorial behavior or competitive ability. Aerodynamic power, by contrast, can be derived from direct measurements of performance and, like WDL, declines across elevations. Here, I demonstrate for a diverse community of Andean hummingbirds that burst aerodynamic power is associated with territorial behavior. Along a second elevational gradient in Colorado, I tested for correlated changes in aerodynamic power and competitive ability in two territorial hummingbirds. This behavioral analysis revealed that short-winged Selasphorus rufus males are dominant over long-winged Selasphorus platycercus males at low elevations but that the roles are reversed at higher elevations. Several lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the burst rather than sustained aerodynamic performance mediates competitive ability at high elevation. A minimum value for burst power may be required for successful competition, but other maneuverability features gain importance when all competitors have sufficient muscle power, as occurs at low elevations.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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