Have wing morphology or flight kinematics evolved for extreme high altitude migration in the bar-headed goose?
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Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) migrate over the Himalayan mountains, at altitudes up to 9000 m above sea level, where air density and oxygen availability are extremely low. This study determined whether alterations in wing morphology or wingbeat frequency during free flight have evolved in this species to facilitate extreme high altitude migration, by comparing it to several closely related goose species. Wingspan and wing loading scaled near isometrically with body mass across all species (with power scaling exponents of 0.22 and 0.47, respectively), and wingbeat frequency scaled negatively to mass (scaling exponent of -0.167). Bar-headed geese had the largest wingspan residual and smallest wing loading residual from these allometric relationships, suggesting that they are at the top end of the wing size distribution. These morphological characters of bar-headed geese were not outside the normal variation exhibited by low altitude species, however, being within the prediction intervals of the regression. This was particularly true after the data were corrected for phylogeny using the independent contrasts method. Wingbeat frequencies of bar-headed geese during steady flight were the same as low altitude geese, both with and without correcting for phylogeny. Without adjusting other kinematic features (e.g., wing motion and generated wake structure) to supplement lift generation in low air densities, the metabolic costs of flight in bar-headed geese at high altitude could exceed the already high costs at sea level. The apparent lack of morphological and kinematic adaptation emphasizes the importance of physiological adaptations for enhancing oxygen transport and utilization in this species.
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