The energy cost of flight: do small bats fly more cheaply than birds?

J Comp Physiol B. 1998 Mar;168(2):105-11. doi: 10.1007/s003600050126.


Flapping flight is one of the most expensive activities in terms of metabolic cost and this cost has previously been considered equal for the two extant vertebrate groups which evolved flapping flight. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining accurate measurements without disturbing flight performance, current estimates of flight cost within the group of small birds and bats differ by more than a factor of five for given body masses. To minimize the potential problem that flight behaviour may be affected by the measurements, we developed an indirect method of measuring flight energy expenditure based on time budget analysis in which small nectar-feeding bats (Glossophaginae) could continue their natural rhythm of flying and resting entirely undisturbed. Estimates of metabolic flight power based on 172 24-h time and energy budget measurements were obtained for nine individual bats from six species (mass 7-28 g). Metabolic flight power (PF) of small bats was found to increase with body mass following the relation PF = 50.2 M0.771 (r2 = 0.96, n = 13, PF in W, M in kg). This is about 20-25% below the majority of current predictions of metabolic flight cost for small birds. Thus, either the flight cost of small birds is significantly lower than has previously been thought or, contrary to current opinion, small bats require less energy to fly than birds.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Feed
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Chiroptera / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Kinetics
  • Species Specificity