Sunday, May 20, 2012

Walker Symposium

This was my abstract (co-authored with David B. Weishampel) for the Walker Symposium at the SVP 2009 Meeting.  It got a bit complicated as my Romer session was concurrent with this one...

Flight morphology and launch dynamics of basal birds, and the potential for competition with pterosaurs
Birds inherited a bipedal gait and feathered airfoils from their theropod ancestry. These features produce specific tradeoffs with regards to launch, maximum size, lift coefficient, and limb disparity. There are subtle effects related to the use of feathered wings, such as the ability to utilize separated wingtip slots and extensive span reduction, which have also influenced avian flight evolution. Combining information from structural mechanics, aerodynamics, and phylogeny, we conclude that the basal state for avian takeoff was a leaping launch, not a running launch. We find that several morphological features of early birds, inherited from theropod ancestry, predisposed them to radiation in inland habitats. We find that Archaeopteryx could sustain substantial loads on both its forelimbs and hindlimbs, but structural ratios between the forelimb and hindlimb of Archaeopteryx are indicative of limited volancy. Limb strength in Confuciusornis was modest, suggesting an emphasis on cruising flight and limited launch power.  We find little evidence to support extensive competition between birds and pterosaurs in the Mesozoic. Prior literature has suggested that pterosaurs competed with early birds for resources and may have helped shape the early evolution of birds. There is some evidence of partitioning between pterosaurs and birds in ecological space. Evidence from the Jehol fauna suggests that pterosaurs dominated near coastlines during the Early Cretaceous, while birds were more diverse and important inland. However, flight is not a single, compact character. Flight mechanics vary considerably across volant animals. Some flyers experience only limited competition for resources with other flying species, and might compete most intensely with non-flying taxa. As a baseline for understanding the interactions between Cretaceous birds and pterosaurs, the flight dynamics of the two groups need to be compared in a quantifiable framework. Birds and pterosaurs inherited different morphologies, and this impacted their flight regimes. Comparing the two systems provides a basis for hypotheses related to competition in the Cretaceous, and the influences on early avian evolution.

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