We examined patterns of variation in the mineral content of the wing skeleton of the Mexican free-tailed bat, Tadarida brasiliensis. We ashed humeri, radii, metacarpals II-V, and phalanges of digit III, and quantified mineralization differences among elements at specific ages, and ontogenetically for each element. The most mineralized elements are the humerus and the radius, followed by the metacarpals, of which the third and fifth are the most mineralized. The proximal and middle phalanges of the third digit exhibit the lowest mineral content, and the distal phalanges have no mineral content according to our ashing protocol. Histological examination shows a thin (< 10 μm) shell of unmineralized osteoid surrounding a cartilaginous core in distal phalanges. Mineral content of each bone increases linearly with age during post-natal development, but there are differences in the rate and extent of this increase among the different elements.
The mineralizaton differences we observed parallel substantially different bone loading patterns found in different parts of the wing in other studies. The humerus and radius are subjected to large torsional loads during flight, while the metacarpals and phalanges experience dorsoventral bending. The high mineral content of the humerus and radius and the low mineral content of the metacarpals and phalanges may resist torsion proximally and promote bending distally. Furthermore, the decrease in mineral content along the wing's proximodistal axis decreases bone mass disproportionately at the wing tips, where the energetic cost of accelerating and decelerating limb mass is greatest.