High-elevation habitats offer ecological advantages including reduced competition, predation, and parasitism [1]. However, flying organisms at high elevation also face physiological challenges due to lower air density and oxygen availability [2]. These constraints are expected to affect the flight maneuvers that are required to compete with rivals, capture prey, and evade threats [3–5]. To test how individual maneuvering performance is affected by elevation, we measured the free-flight maneuvers of male Anna's hummingbirds in a large chamber translocated to a high-elevation site and then measured their performance at low elevation. We used a multi-camera tracking system to identify thousands of maneuvers based on body position and orientation [6]. At high elevation, the birds’ translational velocities, accelerations, and rotational velocities were reduced, and they used less demanding turns. To determine how mechanical and metabolic constraints independently affect performance, we performed a second experiment to evaluate flight maneuvers in an airtight chamber infused with either normoxic heliox, to lower air density, or nitrogen, to lower oxygen availability. The hypodense treatment caused the birds to reduce their accelerations and rotational velocities, whereas the hypoxic treatment had no significant effect on maneuvering performance. Collectively, these experiments reveal how aerial maneuvering performance changes with elevation, demonstrating that as birds move up in elevation, air density constrains their maneuverability prior to any influence of oxygen availability. Our results support the hypothesis that changes in competitive ability at high elevations are the result of mechanical limits to flight performance [7].

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Current Biology

Segre, P.S. (Paolo S.), Dakin, R, Read, T.J.G. (Tyson J.G.), Straw, A.D. (Andrew D.), & Altshuler, D.L. (Douglas L.). (2016). Mechanical Constraints on Flight at High Elevation Decrease Maneuvering Performance of Hummingbirds. Current Biology, 26(24), 3368–3374. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.028