Vikram Baliga studies anatomy and movement of animals in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia. He examines how birds use their wings to generate force and carry them through the sky. Truly understanding the mechanics requires hands-on study — so Baliga sources bird cadavers from museum collections at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
In this PBS Terra video, Vikram Baliga explains why he’s so curious about how animals perform “completely crazy” acrobatics in the air, or how some species (like Common Swifts) are able to stay aloft for months at a time.
Baliga also demonstrates how the “wrists” and “elbows” hidden within different species of bird wings help them achieve different styles of flight.
It sounds morbid, but with a closer look, humans can learn how to build better aircraft or automobiles, using superior natural design informed by millions of years of bird evolution.
The flying capabilities derive from the underlying skeleton; “it’s all in the shapes of the bones and how the bones interact,” Baliga says. “We found that nature has consistently reshaped the skeleton so that the range of motion evolves in concert with the evolution of flight and body size…”
In contrast, birds like eagles (Accipitridae) that glide and soar have a very limited range of motion.
“The shapes of the bones in a bald eagle’s wrist help restrict its wing’s freedom of movement,” says Baliga, “which could be important to keeping steady posture during gliding and soaring.”
Species like the murre (Uria aalge), that swim and propel themselves underwater, have even stronger restrictions to bending and twisting their wings, which might help the birds use them like a paddle.
Watch these videos about flying and wings next:
• Slow-motion pigeon flight
• Why peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on earth
• Gannets Diving for Fish
• Stanford’s one-of-a-kind wind tunnel for birds & drones
• The silent flight superpower of a stealthy predator: The Owl
• Birds gliding through helium bubbles reveal an aerodynamic trick