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PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37335. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037335. Epub 2012 May 18.

Comparing aerodynamic efficiency in birds and bats suggests better flight performance in birds.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.


Flight is one of the energetically most costly activities in the animal kingdom, suggesting that natural selection should work to optimize flight performance. The similar size and flight speed of birds and bats may therefore suggest convergent aerodynamic performance; alternatively, flight performance could be restricted by phylogenetic constraints. We test which of these scenarios fit to two measures of aerodynamic flight efficiency in two passerine bird species and two New World leaf-nosed bat species. Using time-resolved particle image velocimetry measurements of the wake of the animals flying in a wind tunnel, we derived the span efficiency, a metric for the efficiency of generating lift, and the lift-to-drag ratio, a metric for mechanical energetic flight efficiency. We show that the birds significantly outperform the bats in both metrics, which we ascribe to variation in aerodynamic function of body and wing upstroke: Bird bodies generated relatively more lift than bat bodies, resulting in a more uniform spanwise lift distribution and higher span efficiency. A likely explanation would be that the bat ears and nose leaf, associated with echolocation, disturb the flow over the body. During the upstroke, the birds retract their wings to make them aerodynamically inactive, while the membranous bat wings generate thrust and negative lift. Despite the differences in performance, the wake morphology of both birds and bats resemble the optimal wake for their respective lift-to-drag ratio regimes. This suggests that evolution has optimized performance relative to the respective conditions of birds and bats, but that maximum performance is possibly limited by phylogenetic constraints. Although ecological differences between birds and bats are subjected to many conspiring variables, the different aerodynamic flight efficiency for the bird and bat species studied here may help explain why birds typically fly faster, migrate more frequently and migrate longer distances than bats.

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