Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 30.djvu/254

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By Professor W. H. FLOWER, F. R. S.,


THE power of flying through the air is one of the principal characteristics of the class of birds. Although some members of the other great divisions of the vertebrates—the bats among mammals, the extinct pterodactyl among reptiles, the flying-fishes among pisces—possess this power in a greater or less degree, these are all exceptional forms, whereas in birds the faculty of flight is the rule, its absence the exception. Among invertebrates this power is possessed in a very complete degree by the greater number of insects.

In the normal structure of the vertebrate animals there are two pairs of limbs, anterior and posterior, never more. It often happens, however, that one pair, and sometimes both, are suppressed, being rudimentary, functionless, or entirely absent. Flight is always performed by the anterior or pectoral pair, more or less modified for the purpose. The superaddition of wings to arms, as in the pictorial representations of angels, has no counterpart in nature. The wings of the bird, the bat, the pterodactyl, and flying-fish, are the homologues of the arms of man, the fore-legs of beasts. In the flying-fish the power is gained simply by an enlargement of the pectoral fin, and the function is very imperfect; in the pterodactyl, by immense elongation of one (the outer) finger, and extension of the skin between it and the side of the body; in the bats, by elongation of the four outer fingers, and extension of a web of skin between them and the body. In the bird the flying organ is constructed mainly of epidermic structures, peculiar outgrowths from the surface, called feathers—modifications of the same tissue which constitutes the hair, horns, scales, or nails of other animals. Feathers are met with only in birds, and are found in all the existing members of the class, constituting the general covering of the surface of the body.

The framework to which the broad expanse formed by the feathers is attached is composed of bones, essentially resembling those of the fore-limbs of other vertebrates. The distal segment, manus, or hand, in the vast majority of birds, has three metacarpal bones and digits, the former being more or less united together in the adult state. The digits appear to correspond with the pollex, index, and medius of the typical pentadactyl manus; the second is always the longest. Both it and the pollex frequently bear small horny claws at their extremity, concealed among the feathers and functionless, but very significant in relation to the probable original condition of the avian wing. These

  1. Abstract of a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, February 19, 1886.