U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version



P.B. Chilson et al. (eds.), Aeroecology,



U.S. Government Works


Flight has evolved independently in birds, bats, and insects and was present in the Mesozoic pterosaurians that have disappeared. Of the roughly one million living animal species, more than three-quarters are flying insects. Flying is an extremely successful way of locomotion. At first glance, this seems surprising because leaving the ground and moving in the air is energetically expensive. We will therefore start with the question: why do some animals spend a substantial proportion of their life in the air? To generate lift, a few key features are required, and yet, animals show incredible diversity in their flight mechanics. We will review constraints imposed by body size including anatomical adaptations of the skeleton, muscles, and organs necessary to stay airborne with a special focus on the wings. Ecology of the aerial organism, such as diet or migration, has diversified flight styles and the physiological adaptations required to optimize performance. For example, animals are exposed to low temperatures and low oxygen pressure at high altitude, whereas overheating can pose a problem at low altitudes. Moreover, aerial prey can be particularly apparent to aerial predators resulting in selection on flight speed and maneuverability of predators and prey. Flight is energetically costly, much more costly than walking, with the majority of the cost dictated by body mass. Hence, adding weight load to fuel flight also adds to the cost of flight. We review energy supply for flight, and special adaptations for long-term flights. Aeroecology has resulted in extraordinary visual and aural sensory systems of predators, which in coordination with the locomotor system are under strong selection to detect and intercept prey in flight.