Life on a Wing

"Life on a wing" is a display which examines the adaptations that have lead to the successful radiation of birds around the world. From their dinosaurian ancestry to today, birds have improved on a basic design which has made them the masters of the air.

In the display we examine the characteristics of foot, wing and bill specialisation and how these features differentiate between the life mode of the various species of birds.

Birds show an extraordinary variety of foot configurations the most common being the Anisodactly condition. Anisodactly means three toes pointing forward and the hallux or (rear claw) rearward. Other versions exhibit all claws pointing forward and others with two forward and two rearward.

The display also examines skeletal and organ adaptation of birds.

Why do some birds have a keeled sternum while others don’t? The answer to this can be found in the birds adapted mode of life. Basically birds that fly need a large and supportive keel on their sternum to attach and support their wing muscles. Birds that don’t fly such as emus have evolved a shield like sternum which supports wings which are often greatly reduced in size and totally ineffective for flight.

Another adaptation unique to birds is their breathing system which is quite unlike other vertebrates. Muscles are used to move the ribs which pump air around the body while in flight breathing is synchronised to individual wing beats. Thus as the wing beats faster more air is delivered to the body to support the needs of the animals increased metabolism.

Finally this display also clearly shows us the adaptability of birds to fit the diverse ecological niches around the world.

(Activity not offered for this display)