Aerobic power and flight capacity in birds: A phylogenetic test of the heart-size hypothesis

Roberto F. Nespolo, César Gonzaìlez-Lagos, Jaiber J. Solano-Iguaran, Magnus Elfwing, Alvaro Garitano-Zavala, Santiago Mañosa, Juan Carlos Alonso, Jordi Altimiras

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14 Scopus citations


Flight capacity is one of the most important innovations in animal evolution; it only evolved in insects, birds, mammals and the extinct pterodactyls. Given that powered flight represents a demanding aerobic activity, an efficient cardiovascular system is essential for the continuous delivery of oxygen to the pectoral muscles during flight. It is well known that the limiting step in the circulation is stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped from the ventricle to the body during each beat), which is determined by the size of the ventricle. Thus, the fresh mass of the heart represents a simple and repeatable anatomical measure of the aerobic power of an animal. Although several authors have compared heart masses across bird species, a phylogenetic comparative analysis is still lacking. By compiling heart sizes for 915 species and applying several statistical procedures controlling for body size and/or testing for adaptive trends in the dataset (e.g. model selection approaches, phylogenetic generalized linear models), we found that (residuals of ) heart size is consistently associated with four categories of flight capacity. In general, our results indicate that species exhibiting continuous hovering flight (i.e. hummingbirds) have substantially larger hearts than other groups, species that use flapping flight and gliding show intermediate values, and that species categorized as poor flyers show the smallest values. Our study reveals that on a broad scale, routine flight modes seem to have shaped the energetic requirements of birds sufficiently to be anatomically detected at the comparative level.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The following funding agencies contributed to the project: Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Cientıf́ ico y Tecnológico (grant no. 1130750 to R.F.N.; grant no. 11160271 C.G.-L.), Linköpings Universitet (career grant to J.A.), Svenska Forskningsrådet Formas (project grant to J.A.), Dirección General de Investigación Cientıf́ ica y Técnica (project CGL2012-36345 to J.C.A.) and Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientıf́ ica y Tecnológica (fellowship to J.J.S.-I.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.


  • Aves
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Comparative phylogenetics
  • Ornstein-Uhlenbeck models
  • Stroke volume


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