The old erroneous ideas about the evolution of flight

Unfortunately, palaeontologists have never realized that the evolution of active flight was possible only using the roundabout way through the water (Ebel 1996). Particularly, the long-tailed pterosaurs were mere underwater fliers, living in and near the water, unable to fly in the air, in a way comparable to modern penguins. As turtles and crocodiles, they also had to bury their eggs in soft warm ground. Recently found well preserved soft-shelled pterosaur eggs confirm this context.

Unaware of the true evolution to flight ability palaeontologists have speculated about different eventualities. The argumentation of these models does not at all touch the heart of the problem, since they emanate from the presence of a primitive wing, maybe based on creation. My starting point concerning the evolution of flight is based on the application of principles of flight physics. Of course, I do so not only, because I have a thorough knowledge about it, but because this is the only reasonable method to arrive at plausible and provable results. I am accustomed to utilize objective criteria!

The glider idea originates from the 19th century. At that time nobody had an idea about the principles of active flight. Accordingly, this idea is, unfortunately, extremely weak. Nevertheless, it persists being propagated, although there has been a lot of progress concerning flight physics in the meantime, however, obviously not available to incompetent people trying to solve this problem. The old ideas are in a way based on Darwin’s idea of a modified arm function, but it cannot have worked this way. There are many valid arguments against both hypotheses marking them as incorrect as well as completely naive.

 The cursor hypothesis

This idea was created as an alternative of the glider model, because several workers had strong doubts as to the previously formulated glider hypothesis. The cursor hypothesis was mainly supported by the late J. Ostrom, assuming that an Archaeopteryx-precursor had ‘primordial’ wings with feathers which it used as a net for catching insects. Other workers had the idea that the primordial wings functioned as stabilizers during ‘hectic running movements’. The missing sternum in Archaeopteryx was used as an argument that the animal was unable to perform the upward wing beat. Meanwhile the missing breastbone has been discovered with the seventh specimen of Archaeopteryx, and this problem now seems to be resolved.



                                   Archaeopteryx-precursor as a very hypothetical runner


Certainly, somewhen a first bird could take off from the ground and fly away. But the line of argumentation presented by the supporters is not at all convincing. This hypothesis cannot explain why in an animal living on the ground wings should evolve and the ability to fly in the air. There is no physical principle on which such an idea might be based. Lift cannot be generated just by flapping the arms up and down, even if they are equipped with unspecialized feathers. To be able to produce lift as well as propulsion the wing must possess a well developed section, a profile, apart from the exact sequence of movements. Such a profile cannot be created by witchcraft. For ground-dwelling animals there is no need to fly in the air. In Archaeopteryx the maximum running speed was approximately 10 km/h. This speed would have been much too low to generate sufficient lift and to make lift-off possible, since the animal could not yet have learned to perform the exact wing movement, even if a wing was present. 

Rather for the successful evolution of new capabilities the presence of an attractive new food source must be postulated. There must be a need for a behavioural change. But why should a reptile fly for this reason? Insects for example could also easily be caught on the ground. Recent birds having lost their flight ability in part or completely demonstrate that the ability to fly in the air is per se not an attractive aim. Our domestic chicken (Gallus) can still fly a short distance, however it does not like to do so. In journals such as Nature you can occasionally read statements of the kind that nature experimented with new possibilities. It is frustrating to read about such ideas again and again. In my view, this is a naive argumentation, since in any case animals are individuals which do not have time for experiments, but have to look for food all day long. Any animal must perfectly work any time during the entire history of its species. There is no superior authority controlling the evolution, it is just mutation and natural selection by chance, probably alternatively in connection with cybernetic processes which result in an acceleration. Taking account of physical principles the running hypothesis simply does not make sense, it cannot seriously be called a hypothesis. It appears entirely unbelievable that a running animal can catch flying insects in this way. This hypothesis does not represent an improvement. As an endeavour it may be justified but not more. The same applies to the following glider hypothesis.

 The glider hypothesis

As a modification of the original arm function it was considered that precursors of Archaeopteryx were tree-dwellers which became gliders. This process was assumed to have started by leaping from branch to branch using the ‘simple wings’ for generating some lift. Lateron this glide was believed to be extended more and more, until finally the animal could fly. It rings quite reasonable, however it is completely unrealistic. The false idea is that the presence of a wing producing some lift is taken for granted. But it remains entirely unclear how it evolved. This idea goes back to the nineteenth century, when nobody had an idea how flying in the air is feasible. There is even no definition of the kind of gliding involved in these gliders. It is well known that there are two possibilities of safely coming down to the ground, namely parachuting and real gliding. There is a fundamental difference between these alternatives. Parachuting is not a gliding process, but a retarded fall as performed by parachuters. It is exclusively based on the drag of a falling body, without any lift being produced. In contrast to this possibility real gliding including the generation of lift is represented by gliding birds, sailplanes, and even by modern re-entry vehicles. The supporters of the glider hypothesis use to leap between the two alternatives, just as it appears opportune to them for their argumentation. No knowledge in flight physics is ascertainable, only mere fantasy and speculations by laymen.


Parachuting is comparatively easy. It represents a balance condition between the mass of a falling matter and its aerodynamic drag. With his closed parachute a parachuter attains a speed of approximately 200 km/h. After having opened the parachute, the speed is reduced to about 20-25 km/h. Although this speed is still high and corresponds to a free fall from roughly 2 m, it is acceptable to a trained jumper, in particular if he comes down on a soft ground. To retard a fall effectively a large parachute area is required.        



                                                                         Fig. 3. Descent by parachute


In addition, the braking effect is dependent on the shape of the parachute. The best effect is attained by a cup-shaped parachute. The direction is always nearly vertical. It can be modified within certain limits as in a steerable parachute by diverging the flow at the trailing edge which results in a movement in the opposite direction. However, the glide angle is rather steep and cannot be compared with the angle obtained by real gliders. Alternatively a forward component can be established by a jump with a forward component which in any case is more and more reduced during parachuting, as in ski-jumpers.The problem in this line of argumentation consists in the gain of sufficient wing area. The wing area of Archaeopteryx which had already almost perfectly developed wings has been estimated as well as its weight by former workers. Using these values I have estimated the rate of descent during parachuting. It would amount to nearly 33 km/h, considerably more than in a human parachuter. This value corresponds to a free fall from 4 m, completely unacceptable to an animal with delicate bones, since it would lead to a serious injury at least, presumably to death. Unfortunately, the idea of gliding as a pre-condition of flight ability does not appear tenable. A stable gliding condition cannot be achieved before the final speed is reached. Therefore, it remains entirely mysterious how a development towards a lower speed could start, if high speeds in the precursors had inevitably to lead to death.



                          Fig. 4. A flying squirrel parachuting with a forward component


Because of the rapidly increasing speed the duration of such a glide would be restricted to less than one second, if it should not be lethal. Too little time would be available to learn an effective glide control. Without aerodynamic means flight control would have to be done by shifting the centre of gravity as required, in any case a very rough method which was employed by the German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal in Berlin in the late 19th century and led to his death in a crash. As one can see, there are too many physical problems. Objections are inappropriate that modern birds such as hawks are able to descend very steeply and stop their descent shortly before reaching the ground by a few wing beats. The defenders of the glider hypothesis admit that the powered flight only evolved later. According to this line of argumentation Archaeopteryx and her precursors are believed to have been mere gliders, unable to use their wings for powered flight during a parachuting stage.

On the whole, I can definitely state that the ability to fly in the air would not have been possible using the idea of a parachuting stage. Any attempt to come down by parachuting would have ended in a lethal crash. Modern parachuting animals such as flying squirrels have no chance to become real flyers in the future, that is, to develop a wing beat. It is impossible.

By the way, birds do not use this kind of descent, even if it may occasionally appear as parachuting. Birds move using aerodynamic principles; their flight is any time exactly controlled.

 Real gliding

Real gliding is completely different from parachuting. Whereas parachuting is based on drag which requires a large braking area and no lift is present, real gliding is based on the generation of lift in connection with minimum drag. To be able to carry the animal in the air the wings must be equipped with a perfectly designed profile



                           Fig. 5. Generation of lift by a profile in birds or in airplanes



When passing the profile the air has to cover a longer distance on the upper surface than on the lower one. To say so, the air must hurry up on the upper side in order to arrive simultaneously with its neighbouring particles from the lower side at the end of the wing. This results in a stretch and thus in a lower pressure on top of the profile. Lift is produced, because there is a pressure difference between upper and lower side. This pressure difference carries the animal in the air. For the generation of lift, of course, a certain air speed is required.

A perfectly developed profile in birds cannot evolve by chance or by witchcraft. However, it is an inevitable pre-condition for flying in the air. It must be able to produce sufficient lift as well as the lowest possible drag. Here another dilemma of the supporters of the glider hypothesis becomes evident, since an  explanation for the evolution of a profiled wingcannot be found by the idea of precursors jumping from branch to branch. The evolution of a wing and of active flight cannot be found by the idea of precursors jumping from branch to branch. The evolution of a wing and of active flight cannot be explained in this way.



       Fig. 6. The cambered profile of a bird wing and the alula




An alleged advantage of this kind of flight evolution was seen by certain workers in the fact that gravity could be used for propulsion. This ludicrous statement would mean that an increasing gravity would be advantageous which is paradoxical. Flying is possible despite gravity. Maybe, these workers intended to express that a gliding animal is moving on an inclined plane and does not need additional propulsion. Nevertheless, for example designers of sailplanes strive to make the glide angle as small as possible by reducing the drag of new designs more and more, that is, to resist the effects of gravity as much as possible and to obtain increasing distances from a given altitude.



Fig. 7. Stable glide in a modern bird. The occurring forces are balanced, forming a closed triangle.



In comparison to parachuting the angle of attack during real gliding is rather small. Though it is dependent on the shape of the profile, generally it is between 5° and 8°, the values for maximum range respectively maximum endurance. To be able to glide on an inclined plane an animal must be able to control its flight path exactly. Gliding is only possible, if it can exactly maintain the allowable range of angles of attack which yields sufficient lift on the one hand and no excessive drag on the other. This range is very narrow and comprises only a few degrees.



                                Fig. 8. Dependency of lift and drag on the angle of attack



The highest allowable angle of attack is roughly 15° to 20°. If it is exceeded a completely uncontrollable flight situation occurs. This is the most frequent cause of airplane desasters, if the flight speed falls short of the minimum allowable speed unintentionally or unnoticed. Flying in the air is not dangerous because of too high speeds, but of too low ones. Most crashes happen during takeoff and landing. Low speeds include the biggest problems also for birds regarding steering and power consumption. Only the tiny humming-birds can hover in the air, because their small size allows a symmetrical profile which generates the same lift and propulsion during the upward beat as well as during the downward beat, and they are able to compensate their weight in an inclined attitude. Birds are able to vary the direction of the force generated by the wings within a wide range. However, the shaking wing motion of a kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is not a real hover, since it utilizes headwind to stay above a certain location.

On the other hand, if the angle of attack is too small then not enough lift is produced and the animal cannot maintain its altitude for this reason. Gliding makes great demands concerning the steering capabilities, much greater ones than considered by the advocates of this hypothesis, if they did at all. I cannot see how a gliding precursor of birds could have managed these problems. In order to avoid a lethal fall, initial glides had to be shorter than one second, as also in parachuting. This time is neither sufficient to gain the speed required nor to learn an effective glide control. Crashed gliders were unable to pass on their experiences to successors; another dilemma which has not been considered or quickly passed over in silence.

Apart from the existing control problems real gliding is connected with considerable speeds. No glider uses to fly at a speed near the maximum lift because of the imminent hazard of stall by flow separation. A safety margin is generally considered. A reasonable gliding speed of Archaeopteryx would be approximately 45-50 km/h. Even in case of a relatively low rate of descent the total dynamic energy had to be annihilated at arrival on the ground. This speed corresponds to a free fall from a height of approximately 8,5 m and would certainly have been lethal. Remember that at the supposed start of evolution there were no means available to retard the gliding speed, as modern birds can do using a few wing beats. Recent birds do not only use their wings for lift and propulsion, but can generate a force of almost any direction, thus also for retardation. Following the argumentation of the glider hypothesis the wing beat should have developed only later. There are only woolly ideas about this evolutionary process. An impression as to the problems of lacking means of retardation can be obtained by an albatross which has to land in calm air, but often tumbles over. This is an exceptional problem, since normally albatrosses can expect high wind speeds to which these birds are adapted, but no more to low speeds. In addition, we must take into account that at the beginning of flight evolution the wings must have been considerably smaller than those of Archaeopteryx. Therefore, the precursors were unable to do all the clever tricks of modern birds.

It is noteworthy that obviously the wing of Archaeopteryx was not yet adapted to low speeds, because the decisive feature of birds flying in the air was still lacking, namely the alula. Three fingers of the manus were still equipped with claws which were only modified in the later real bird Eoalulavis. The alula functions as a small additional wing which is used to prevent or postpone flow separation of the outer wing and probably as a sensor of imminent flow separation. The missing alula would be very strange in a flying bird, which of course would have been confronted with the problems of take-off and landing from the very beginning.

As a whole, the glider hypothesis also is not at all convincing, despite the continuous efforts of its supporters to find a link between Archaeopteryx and modern parachuting reptiles or mammals which certainly are no gliders, but parachuters. The latter mammals have not the slightest chance to learn the active wing beat. Remember that their descent is based on drag, not on lift