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Scaling of Soaring Seabirds and Implications for Flight Abilities of Giant Pterosaurs

By Katsufumi Sato, Kentaro Q. Sakamoto, Yutaka Watanuki, Akinori Takahashi, Nobuhiro Katsumata, Charles-André Bost and Henri Weimerskirch

Abstract

The flight ability of animals is restricted by the scaling effects imposed by physical and physiological factors. In comparisons of the power available from muscle and the mechanical power required to fly, it is predicted that the margin between the powers should decrease with body size and that flying animals have a maximum body size. However, predicting the absolute value of this upper limit has proven difficult because wing morphology and flight styles varies among species. Albatrosses and petrels have long, narrow, aerodynamically efficient wings and are considered soaring birds. Here, using animal-borne accelerometers, we show that soaring seabirds have two modes of flapping frequencies under natural conditions: vigorous flapping during takeoff and sporadic flapping during cruising flight. In these species, high and low flapping frequencies were found to scale with body mass (mass−0.30 and mass−0.18) in a manner similar to the predictions from biomechanical flight models (mass−1/3 and mass−1/6). These scaling relationships predicted that the maximum limits on the body size of soaring animals are a body mass of 41 kg and a wingspan of 5.1 m. Albatross-like animals larger than the limit will not be able to flap fast enough to stay aloft under unfavourable wind conditions. Our result therefore casts doubt on the flying ability of large, extinct pterosaurs. The largest extant soarer, the wandering albatross, weighs about 12 kg, which might be a pragmatic limit to maintain a safety margin for sustainable flight and to survive in a variable environment

Topics: Research Article
Publisher: Public Library of Science
OAI identifier: oai:pubmedcentral.nih.gov:2670537
Provided by: PubMed Central
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