Context-dependent flight speed: evidence for energetically optimal flight speed in the bat Pipistrellus kuhlii?

J Anim Ecol. 2009 May;78(3):540-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2009.01526.x. Epub 2009 Feb 20.


1. Understanding the causes and consequences of animal flight speed has long been a challenge in biology. Aerodynamic theory is used to predict the most economical flight speeds, minimizing energy expenditure either per distance (maximal range speed, Vmr) or per time (minimal power speed, Vmp). When foraging in flight, flight speed also affects prey encounter and energy intake rates. According to optimal flight speed theory, such effects may shift the energetically optimal foraging speed to above Vmp. 2. Therefore, we predicted that if energetic considerations indeed have a substantial effect on flight speed of aerial-hawking bats, they will use high speed (close to Vmr) to commute from their daily roost to the foraging sites, while a slower speed (but still above Vmp) will be preferred during foraging. To test these predictions, echolocation calls of commuting and foraging Pipistrellus kuhlii were recorded and their flight tracks were reconstructed using an acoustic flight path tracking system. 3. Confirming our qualitative prediction, commuting flight was found to be significantly faster than foraging flight (9.3 vs. 6.7 m s(-1)), even when controlling for its lower tortuosity. 4. In order to examine our quantitative prediction, we compared observed flight speeds with Vmp and Vmr values generated for the study population using two alternative aerodynamic models, based on mass and wing morphology variables measured from bats we captured while commuting. The Vmp and Vmr values generated by one of the models were much lower than our measured flight speed. According to the other model used, however, measured foraging flight was faster than Vmp and commuting flight slightly slower than Vmr, which is in agreement with the predictions of optimal flight speed theory. 5. Thus, the second aerodynamic model we used seems to be a reasonable predictor of the different flight speeds used by the bats while foraging and while commuting. This supports the hypothesis that bats fly at a context-dependent, energetically optimal flight speed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chiroptera / physiology*
  • Echolocation
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Female
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Male