High flight costs, but low dive costs, in auks support the biomechanical hypothesis for flightlessness in penguins
Flight is a key adaptive trait. Despite its advantages, flight has been lost in several groups of birds, notably among seabirds, where flightlessness has evolved independently in at least five lineages. One hypothesis for the loss of flight among seabirds is that animals moving between different media face tradeoffs between maximizing function in one medium relative to the other. In particular, biomechanical models of energy costs during flying and diving suggest that a wing designed for optimal diving performance should lead to enormous energy costs when flying in air. Costs of flying and diving have been measured in free-living animals that use their wings to fly or to propel their dives, but not both. Animals that both fly and dive might approach the functional boundary between flight and nonflight. We show that flight costs for thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia), which are wing-propelled divers, and pelagic cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) (foot-propelled divers), are the highest recorded for vertebrates. Dive costs are high for cormorants and low for murres, but the latter are still higher than for flightless wing-propelled diving birds (penguins). For murres, flight costs were higher than predicted from biomechanical modeling, and the oxygen consumption rate during dives decreased with depth at a faster rate than estimated biomechanical costs. These results strongly support the hypothesis that function constrains form in diving birds, and that optimizing wing shape and form for wing-propelled diving leads to such high flight costs that flying ceases to be an option in larger wing-propelled diving seabirds, including penguins.