The Evolution of Flight



  2. FEBRUARY 2005. Gliding Ants (p. 165)

  1. New flight model for pterosaurs. Basically, the novelty is in proposing a flap effect for a strip of tissue along the leading edge of the wing, manipulated by the pteroid bone. The idea was tested in a wind tunnel. The "flap" would have been used mainly on take-off and landing, but could have been used to do barrel-rolls in flight (if needed!). This function would be analogous to the flaps on an airplane (aeroplane for Brits). And all pterosaurs had it. The paper was in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, October 2005. I think it is a classic. The experiments were done in Ellington's lab in Cambridge, so you can be sure about them. What they have done is to take away any lingering doubt there may have been that pterosaurs could take off and land effectively.

  2. Gliding ants. Here's something else to add to the list of animals that have evolved gliding. Press release from UC Berkeley, February 2005. Astounding: but there are probably lots more of them if anyone looked.


Flight in Insects

P. 166. Swimming (and skimming) as a preadaptation

Flight in Vertebrates

UC Berkeley's pages on vertebrate flight: the subsections include pages on most of the sections below.

P. 167. Parachuting Vertebrates

P. 167. Early Gliding Vertebrates



Birds are much underrated in terms of intelligence: "bird-brain" is a term of abuse in American vernacular. The reality is that (modern) birds are very clever, and it may be that the cunning of dinosaurs was one of things that Michael Crichton got right in Jurassic Park:. Crows have been studied intensively:

The Solnhofen Limestone

Home of Archaeopteryx, the earliest bird, and many beautiful pterosaur fossils.

Early Birds, including Archaeopteryx

The Origin of Feathers

The Origin of Powered Flight in Birds

The Display and Fighting Hypothesis

The WAIR hypothesis

was published in January 2003. .pdf file of the paper

Here's my take. The observations on living birds are fascinating, but the application to the origin of bird flight is wrong, in my opinion. I wrote a very brief note to Science about it, but it was not published: Letter to Science, submitted February 2003, rejected March 2003.

Did Archaeopteryx Fly?

It is fair to say that opinion is divided on whether Archaeopteryx could fly. . (Long essay on Wikipedia, updated to March 2013.)

I suspect that Archaeopteryx could not fly. Part of the problem as I see it, and say in the book, is that Archaeopteryx could not have had an effective upstroke without the supracoracoideus system. For my longer mini-essay on the lack of flight in Archaeopteryx, see this mini-essay.

In 2010, Nudds and Dyke reported in Science that the feathers of Archaeopteryx were too weak to support active flight. Abstract of the paper

Phil Currie argued in response that since Archaeopteryx was preserved in shallow marine sediment, that it must have flown to get there. This is nonsense: Schäfer's 1972 book on paleoecology from the 1970s described in detail how dead shorebirds floated out to sea after drying out on the beach. ScienceNow news item.

In May 1999, Nature published a paper by Burgers and Chiappe, which claimed that Archaeopteryx ran well, and was able to take off by flapping its wings and running. I have problems with this paper. In a nutshell, I suspect that Burgers used equations from living birds that fly to do his calculations on Archaeopteryx. In other words, he assumed his answer first. But he avoids saying that, even in the small print of the footnotes... Here is the paper, rightly or wrongly posted on the Web, but not by Nature.

New Cretaceous Birds

Some Cretaceous birds and close relatives:

Cenozoic Birds

The Largest Flying Birds


The reference list for Chapter 13

Page last updated, April 7, 2013

Links last checked March 15, 2013

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