The scaling of the size and stiffness of primary flight feathers


  • Earth Systems Science and Policy, California State University, Monterey Bay, 100 Campus Center, Seaside, CA93955-8001, USA


Birds encompass a large range of body sizes, yet the importance of body size on feather morphology and mechanical properties has not been characterized. In this study, I examined the scaling relationships of primary flight feathers within a phylogenetically diverse sample of avian species varying in body size by nearly three orders of magnitude. I measured the scaling relationships between body mass and feather linear dimensions as well as feather flexural stiffness. The resnlts of an independent contrasts analysis to test the effects of phylogenetic history on the characters measured had no effect on the scaling relationships observed. There was slight, but not significant, positive allometry in the scaling of shaft diameter with respect to feather length across a range of body masses. The scaling of feather length and diameter against body mass was not significantly different from isometry. Flexural stiffness, however, exhibited strong negative allometry. Therefore, larger birds have relatively more flexible feathers than smaller birds. The more flexible primary feathers of large birds may reduce stresses on the wing skeleton during take-off and landing and also make these feathers less susceptible to mechanical failure. Conversely, the greater flexibility of these feathers may also reduce their capacity to generate aerodynamic lift.