Functional correlation between habitat use and leg morphology in birds (Aves)

Anna Zeffer, Christoffer Johansson, Åsa Marmebro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many of the morphological features of animals are considered to be adaptations to the habitat that the animals utilize. The habitats utilized by birds vary, perhaps more than for any other group of vertebrates. Here, we study possible adaptations in the morphology of the skeletal elements of the hind limbs to the habitat of birds. Measurements of the lengths of the femur, tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus of 323 bird species from 74 families are used together with body mass data, taken from the literature. The species are separated into six habitat groups on the basis of literature data on leg use. A discriminant analysis of the groups based on leg morphology shows that swimming birds, wading birds and ground living species are more easily identified than other birds. Furthermore, functional predictions are made for each group based on ecological and mechanical considerations. The groups were tested for deviation from the norm for all birds for three indices of size- and leg-length-independent measures of the bones and for a size-independent-index of leg length. Several of the groups deviate significantly from the norm for one or more of the indices used, suggesting habitat-related adaptations in the leg morphology of birds. The results indicate that stability is an important factor affecting the leg morphology of primarily long-legged birds. The femur seems to be more important than previously thought because several of the groups have high femur indices, suggesting a positive selection pressure on this bone. On a general basis, the results suggest that the effect of leg length should be taken into consideration when discussing adaptations of mass-independent lengths of the long bones of the legs of birds
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)461-484
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015.
The record was previously connected to the following departments: Theoretical ecology (Closed 2011) (011006011)

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ecology


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