Wings versus legs in the avian bauplan: development and evolution of alternative locomotor strategies

Evolution. 2015 Feb;69(2):305-20. doi: 10.1111/evo.12576. Epub 2015 Jan 19.


Wings have long been regarded as a hallmark of evolutionary innovation, allowing insects, birds, and bats to radiate into aerial environments. For many groups, our intuitive and colloquial perspective is that wings function for aerial activities, and legs for terrestrial, in a relatively independent manner. However, insects and birds often engage their wings and legs cooperatively. In addition, the degree of autonomy between wings and legs may be constrained by tradeoffs, between allocating resources to wings versus legs during development, or between wing versus leg investment and performance (because legs must be carried as baggage by wings during flight and vice versa). Such tradeoffs would profoundly affect the development and evolution of locomotor strategies, and many related aspects of animal ecology. Here, we provide the first evaluation of wing versus leg investment, performance and relative use, in birds-both across species, and during ontogeny in three precocial species with different ecologies. Our results suggest that tradeoffs between wing and leg modules help shape ontogenetic and evolutionary trajectories, but can be offset by recruiting modules cooperatively. These findings offer a new paradigm for exploring locomotor strategies of flying organisms and their extinct precursors, and thereby elucidating some of the most spectacular diversity in animal history.

Keywords: Evolution; legs; locomotion; locomotor modules; ontogeny; tradeoffs; wings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Birds / growth & development*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal
  • Locomotion / physiology
  • Lower Extremity / anatomy & histology
  • Lower Extremity / physiology*
  • Wings, Animal / anatomy & histology
  • Wings, Animal / physiology*