Functional osteology of the avian wrist and the evolution of flapping flight.

Research paper by Rick J RJ Vazquez

Indexed on: 01 Mar '92Published on: 01 Mar '92Published in: Journal of Morphology


The avian wrist is extraordinarily adapted for flight. Its intricate osteology is constructed to perform four very different, but extremely important, flight-related functions. (1) Throughout the downstroke, the cuneiform transmits force from the carpometacarpus to the ulna and prevents the manus from hyperpronating. (2) While gliding or maneuvering, the scapholunar interlocks with the carpometacarpus and prevents the manus from supinating. By employing both carpal bones simultaneously birds can lock the manus into place during flight. (3) Throughout the downstroke-upstroke transition, the articular ridge on the distal extremity of the ulna, in conjuction with the cuneiform, guides the manus from the plane of the wing toward the body. (4) During take-off or landing, the upstroke of some heavy birds exhibits a pronounced flick of the manus. The backward component of this flick is produced by reversing the wrist mechanism that enables the manus to rotate toward the body during the early upstroke. The upward component of the flick is generated by mechanical interplay between the ventral ramus of the cuneiform, the ventral ridge of the carpometacarpus, and the ulnocarpo-metacarpal ligament. Without the highly specialized osteology of the wrist it is doubtful that birds would be able to carry out successfully the wing motions associated with flapping flight. Yet in Archaeopteryx, the wrist displays a very different morphology that lacks all the key features found in the modern avian wrist. Therefore, Archaeopteryx was probably incapable of executing the kinematics of modern avian powered flight. Copyright © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.