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Primary feather lengths may not be important for inferring the flight styles of Mesozoic birds





Nicholas R. Chan [ ], Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, 2109 New South Wales, Australia; Gareth J. Dyke [ ], Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton SO14 3ZH UK; Michael Benton [ ], School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1RJ UK; manuscript received on 28/04/12; manuscript accepted on 13/06/12.


Chan, N.R., Dyke, G.J. & Benton, M.J. 2013: Primary feather lengths may not be important for inferring the flight styles of Mesozoic birds. Lethaia, Vol. 46, pp. 146–152.

Although many Mesozoic fossil birds have been found with primary feathers preserved, these structures have rarely been included in morphometric analyses. This is surprising because the flight feathers of modern birds can contribute approximately 50% of the total wing length, and so it would be assumed that their inclusion or exclusion would modify functional interpretations. Here we show, contrary to earlier work, that this may not be the case. Using forelimb measurements and primary feather lengths from Mesozoic birds, we constructed morphospaces for different clades, which we then compared with morphospaces constructed for extant taxa classified according to flight mode. Consistent with older work, our results indicate that among extant birds some functional flight groups can be distinguished on the basis of their body sizes and that variation in the relative proportions of the wing elements is conservative. Mesozoic birds, on the other hand, show variable proportions of wing bones, with primary feather length contribution to the wing reduced in the earlier diverging groups. We show that the diverse Mesozoic avian clade Enantiornithes overlaps substantially with extant taxa in both size and limb element proportions, confirming previous morphometric results based on skeletal elements alone. However, these measurements cannot be used to distinguish flight modes in extant birds, and so cannot be used to infer flight mode in fossil forms. Our analyses suggest that more data from fossil birds, combined with accurate functional determination of the flight styles of living forms is required if we are to be able to predict the flight modes of extinct birds. □Birds, flight, morphospace, Mesozoic, wing.