In the world of flying animals, stories of remarkable physical engineering come to light.
Flight mass: The bigger the animal, the harder the liftoff. That’s what Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone says in The Conversation: the biggest pterosaurs—the largest flying animals in history—pulled a feat that baffles engineers. “We’d expect an animal the size of a large pterosaur to be too big to fly.” Look at the graphic of an Arambourgiania pterosaur standing as tall as a giraffe to see why; nobody would expect a giraffe to launch itself into the air. How did the big pterosaurs do it? Their whole bodies were designed for flight: thin membranes, hollow bones, and “a highly specialised respiratory system, similar to that of birds, with air sacs in addition to their lungs,” even though they are not related to birds by any evolutionary scheme. They even had air sacs in their necks, trunk and wings.
Scientists used to believe the large pterosaurs leaped off cliffs to get airborne, but now they think they were able to launch themselves from a standing position, even though new estimates show them heavier than previously thought. This only adds to the puzzle. Martin-Silverstone, who makes CT scans of pterosaur bones to create 3-D models, ends her article:
Palaeontologists still have many questions about giant pterosaur flight. We don’t fully understand how they took off or what kind of flyers they were once in the air. Did they flap or soar? How long could they fly for? How did they land? In fact, some people still believe these giraffe-sized animals were too heavy to fly at all. But then what did they do with their wings? These are all questions that new techniques and fossil finds are starting to answer.
Flight light: National Geographic posted an article about fireflies, including two video clips. Reporter Liz Langley focuses on the sexual attraction of the lights rather than their design, which she attributes to blind evolution: “The firefly gene that codes for luciferase is very similar to a common fatty acid-making gene,” she relates from her expert Sara Lewis, author of a book on fireflies. “It’s likely a duplicate of that gene acquired a mutation that caused it to produce a tiny bit of light in a distant firefly ancestor.” Similarity, however, does not prove ancestry, as the pterosaur entry above shows. What Lewis and Langley omit to describe is the highly-organized structure of the light organs in fireflies, which are arranged in magnificent ranks (see Oxford Journal illustrations) that generate light while protecting the insect from damaging oxygen radicals. Langley does point out, however, that the luciferase gene has opened up new light in medical research, allowing scientists to monitor cellular processes by making them light up.
Flight wings: Does migration make butterfly wings larger? Science Daily reports a new study on Monarch butterflies that asked whether migrating Monarchs have larger wings than sedentary Monarchs. The answer appears to be yes. Earlier work didn’t correct for Bergmann’s Rule, a biological principle that says equatorial animals tend to be smaller than those at higher latitudes. Correcting for Bergmann’s Rule still showed the migrators to be larger. Why? “It seems that the long-distance journey acts to weed out smaller monarchs each year, leaving only the biggest ones, which then go on to reproduce,” the article says. “In monarch populations that are sedentary, this selection does not happen.” The selection answer doesn’t explain how Monarchs got their wings in the first place. If it did, why does wing size stop where it does? Why doesn’t selection create wings as large as pterosaur wings? It also doesn’t explain the smaller Bogong moth that also undertakes long-distance migration (Evolution News & Views). Besides, there’s more than size involved in wing dynamics. Consider the shapes of jet wings compared to stunt biplane wings. Monarch wings are not much different in shape than those of other species, yet they succeed in flying much longer distances.
Rumble bees: We end with a quote from PhysOrg: “Look up the word ‘bumble,’ and the definition may read something like ‘To move or act in a confused, awkward or clumsy manner.’ But the bumble bee, a member of the genus Bombus, is anything but clumsy. In fact, the insects are expert aviators, alighting with precision inside flowers and vigorously shaking pollen loose from their stamens.”
“Expert aviators.” Whether as small as a fruit fly or as large as a giraffe-height pterosaur, flying animals show mastery of physics. Is it credible to think evolution hit on powered flight four times? (insects, bats, birds and pterosaurs). Watch Flight: The Genius of Birds, the beautiful documentary on flight from Illustra Media. It explains why powered flight requires seeing a distant goal, and arranging multiple independent systems for the purpose of overcoming gravity. Specialized lungs, muscles, bones, digestive systems, excretory systems, circulatory systems, reproductive systems, nervous systems, instincts and everything else have to contribute to the goal, simultaneously and effectively. To think that could happen even once by blind processes is folly. Four times? Folly to the 4th power! Aviation expertise showcases intelligent design, in the smallest firefly to the largest pterosaur, and in everything between. Give honor to whom honor is due.