Flight performance seems to change systematically with body size: small animals can hover and fly over a wide range of speeds, but large birds taxi for takeoff and then fly over a narrow speed range. The traditional explanation for this is that the mass-specific power required for flight varies with speed according to a U-shaped curve, and it also scales between m0 and m1/6, where m is body mass. The mass-specific power available from the flight muscles is assumed to scale as m−1/3. As available power decreases with increasing body size, the range of attainable flight speeds becomes progressively reduced until the largest animals can only fly in the trough of the U-shaped curve. Above a particular size, the available power is insufficient and flapping flight is not possible.

The underlying assumptions of this argument are examined in this review. Metabolic measurements are more consistent with a J-shaped curve, with little change in power from hovering to intermediate flight speeds, than with a U-shaped curve. Scaling of the mass-specific power required to fly agrees with predictions. The mass-specific power available from, the muscles, estimated from maximal loading studies, varies as m0.13. This scaling cannot be distinguished from that of the power required to fly, refuting the argument that power imposes an intrinsic scaling on flight performance. It is suggested instead that limitations on low-speed performance result from an adverse scaling of lift production with increasing body size.

This content is only available via PDF.