On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight

On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight

On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight

On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight

Synopsis

Ask anybody what superpower they wished to possess and odds are the answer just might be "the ability to fly." What is it about soaring through the air held up by the power of one's own body that has captivated humans for so long? David Alexander examines the evolution of flight in the only four animals to have evolved this ability: insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. With an accessible writing style grounded in rigorous research, Alexander breaks new ground in a field that has previously been confined to specialists. While birds have received the majority of attention from flight researchers, Alexander pays equal attention to all four groups of flyers-something that no other book on the subject has done before now. In a streamlined and captivating way, David Alexander demonstrates the links between the tiny 2-mm thrip and the enormous albatross with the 12 feet wingspan used to cross oceans. The book delves into the fossil record of flyers enough to satisfy the budding paleontologist, while also pleasing ornithologists and entomologists alike with its treatment of animal behavior, flapping mechanisms, and wing-origin theory. Alexander uses relatable examples to draw in readers even without a natural interest in birds, bees, and bats. He takes something that is so off-limits and unfamiliar to humans-the act of flying-and puts it in the context of experiences that many readers can relate to. Alexander guides readers through the anomalies of the flying world: hovering hummingbirds, unexpected gliders (squirrels, for instance), and the flyers that went extinct (pterosaurs). Alexander also delves into wing-origin theory and explores whether birds entered the skies from the trees down (as gliders) or from the ground up (as runners) and uses the latest fossil evidence to present readers with an answer.

Excerpt

I was inspecting my tomato plants when I heard a familiar buzz. Looking up, I expected to see the fuzzy yellow-and-black of a bumblebee; instead, I caught a glimpse of bright metallic green. My buzzing visitor was actually a beetle, a singularly handsome scarab in a group called the bumble flower beetles. I was able to get a very nice look at my little visitor as it came to a near-standstill to inspect the foliage. The beetle hovered near a plant, probably looking for flowers for a quick bite of pollen, effortlessly matching the swaying of leaves and stems in the breeze. This beetle had a flattened, green metallic body with a coppery stripe down each side, making it Cotinus nitida, the green June beetle. I could only see the beetle’s wings at certain angles where the barely visible blur told me they were a good bit longer than the beetle’s body. Although I know that the beetle was beating its wings at about 80 beats per second and that it uses ingenious origami-like folds to get its big wings stowed under their covers after landing, my real delight came in watching the little beast delicately inspect a couple of plants while giving me an expert demonstration of its hummingbird-like hovering abilities. After a few seconds, apparently deciding my garden offered too few rewards, the beetle rose up and shot across the lawn so fast that I lost sight of it after 3 or 4 meters (10 or 12 feet).

These flashy scarabs are not all that closely related to the more common, brown June beetle. Green June beetles are bigger, more agile, and fly during the day, unlike common June beetles, which tend to be nocturnal. Scarabs make up a huge family of beetles, and biologists put green June beetles and common June beetles in entirely separate subfamilies.

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