What it takes to fly: The structural and functional respiratory refinements in birds and bats

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142 Citations (Scopus)


In absolute terms, flight is a highly energetically expensive form of locomotion. However, with respect to its cost per unit distance covered, powered flight is a very efficient mode of transport. Birds and bats are the only extant vertebrate taxa that have achieved flight. Phylogenetically different, they independently accomplished this elite mode of locomotion by employing diverse adaptive schemes and strategies. Integration of functional and structural parameters, a transaction that resulted in certain trade-offs and compromises, was used to overcome exacting constraints. Unique morphological, physiological and biochemical properties were initiated and refined to enhance the uptake, transfer and utilization of oxygen for high aerobic capacities. In bats, exquisite pulmonary structural parameters were combined with optimal haematological ones: A thin blood-gas barrier, a large pulmonary capillary blood volume and a remarkably extensive alveolar surface area in certain species developed in a remarkably large lung. These factors were augmented by, for example, exceptionally high venous haematocrits and haemoglobin concentrations. In birds, a particularly large respiratory surface area and a remarkably thin blood-gas (tissue) barrier developed in a small, rigid lung; a highly efficient cross-current system was fabricated within the parabronchi. The development of fight in only four animal taxa (among all the animal groups that have ever evolved; i.e. insects, the now-extinct pterosaurs, birds and bats) provides evidence for the enormous biophysical and energetic constraints that have stymied volancy. Bats improved a fundamentally mammalian lung to procure the large amounts of oxygen needed for flight. The lung/air sac system of birds is not therefore a prescriptive morphology for fight: the essence of its design can be found in the evolution of the reptilian lung, the immediate progenitor stock from which birds arose. The attainment of flight is a classic paradigm of the remarkable adaptability inherent in organismal and organic biology for countering selective pressures by initiating elegant morphologies and physiologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3045-3064
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Bat
  • Bird
  • Blood
  • Flight
  • Haematocrit
  • Hypoxia
  • Lung
  • Oxygen consumption

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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